The Tea Party Has Already Won

Beth Reinhard
December 11, 2013

Seven tea party challengers are running against Republican incumbents in next year's Senate primaries, and it's entirely possible that every last one of them will lose.

But it doesn't really matter: The tea party has already won.

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Though the movement's candidates are underdogs in most of the 2014 contests against the Republican establishment, the mere fear of conservative challengers has the grassroots chalking up victory after victory on Capitol Hill.

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The tea party shut down the government over Obamacare, put immigration reform on life support, and is holding the farm bill hostage over food stamps. Hard-liners long ago torpedoed hopes of a "grand bargain" over the budget and debt limit. And in a sign that budget compromise with Democrats continues to be verboten, conservative groups from Heritage Action to FreedomWorks were rejecting a deal between Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan Tuesday -- before it was even announced.

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So even if Republicans facing primary challengers from the right are not in real danger, their rivals will keep bringing the heat, scrambling the potential for deals by a Congress already making history for doing so little.

"The tea party has racked up important victories electorally but also ideologically, and that pressure on establishment Republicans will continue," said James Hartman, a Louisiana-based political consultant advising tea party-backed congressional candidate Rob Maness. "The compromises being blocked are absolutely favorable in terms of public policy. No, we don't want tax increases. No, we don't want Obamacare."

The battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party expanded in the past week to include challenges against Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, bringing the total of GOP senators facing primary opponents to seven. All of the incumbents are favored to beat their opponents. But that doesn't mean they're free to cut any deals across the aisle; doing so would be risky in a highly polarized political climate that sees compromise as betrayal.

"Members of Congress are risk averse, and if they can avoid getting attention from the bullies, they will," said Republican consultant John Feehery, a former Capitol Hill staffer.

Former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, chairman of the board of the pro-immigration reform America Action Network, says he doesn't see any Republican senators in jeopardy. But he acknowledged that what he called the "fringe of the tea party" will make it extremely difficult to reach agreements on a pathway to citizenship and other issues.

"Elements within the tea party are definitely pushing Republicans to the right really hard and pushing a purist approach," he said. "If folks are saying 'don't compromise,' that obviously makes it harder to find common ground."

Some of the Republican insurgents, including House candidate Bryan Smith in Idaho and Senate candidates Chris McDaniel in Mississippi and Matt Bevin in Kentucky, were already calling on members to reject a budget deal to keep the government open after Jan. 15 -- before the agreement was finalized. Their objection is that it would eliminate some of the spending cuts that were mandatory under the so-called sequester.

"The Ryan-Murray deal is a complete abdication of Washington's governing responsibility," said McDaniel, who announced his challenge to Cochran last week. This kind of incendiary rhetoric makes it harder for members to reach even a short-term agreement.

Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist called the sequester "the great accomplishment of the tea party movement" on Twitter – a sign, he said, that the tea party has succeeded in changing the culture in Washington and beyond.

"Earmarks were previously viewed as a sign of virility and power," he added in an email. "They are now viewed as akin to shoplifting. That cultural shift in the GOP caucus is enduring."

While conservative rivals will keep Republican incumbents on their heels, Brian Walsh, a former spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the primaries will ultimately strengthen the party.

"I think the lesson everyone drew the last two cycles is that Republican incumbents can't take anything for granted," he said. "To the extent that they win those primaries and fend off those attacks, the stronger the party will be in the future."

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