Psychological warfare, Tea Party-style

Another primary win further embeds the angry GOP base in the minds of Republican office-holders everywhere

Published August 1, 2012 11:15AM (EDT)

There are two ways to classify the significance of every Republican primary victory by a Tea Party-aligned candidate: 1) psychological; and 2) psychological and electoral.

The victory of Ted Cruz in Texas last night is a classic example of the first type. Whether Republicans nominated Cruz or his opponent, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for the Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison, they were going to win in November. Texas is too GOP-friendly a state, especially in a presidential election year. Plus, there really was no ideological daylight between Cruz and Dewhurst; it would be hard to differentiate the men based solely on their issue positions, which hew to Tea Party norms of the Obama era. So in terms of the November election, there will be no electoral implications.

But the Tea Party movement picked sides in the race anyway, lining up squarely behind Cruz. As Alex Seitz-Wald explained, this reflected the Tea Party’s preference for outsiders – Dewhurst, who ran with Gov. Rick Perry’s backing, is a fixture of the state Republican establishment – as well as more pragmatic considerations, like Cruz’s relative youth (42 years old, to Dewhurst’s 66).

Thus, Cruz’s triumph in last night’s runoff is an affirmation of the power of a united and engaged Tea Party movement within the Republican Party, something that won’t go unnoticed by Republicans who already hold office on Capitol Hill, and in state capitals too, for that matter. It delivers the same message to them that the other high-profile Tea Party primary triumphs of the last few years delivered: Defy us at your own risk. The effect of this threat has been to largely erase whatever pragmatic instincts once existed among congressional Republicans, forcing them to accommodate their party’s right-wing true believers for fear of becoming the next Bob Bennett, Mike Castle or Bob Inglis. Cruz’s win reinforces this fear.

Other GOP primaries this year have had the same effect. Dick Lugar’s lopsided loss to Richard Mourdock in Indiana is the most obvious example, and Deb Fischer’s surprise win in Nebraska probably qualifies too. Orrin Hatch’s easy win over Dan Liljenquist in Utah counts too; Hatch seemed an obvious Tea Party target at the beginning of the cycle, but moved so loudly and so decisively to the right that he managed to head off a full-scale insurrection.

As with Cruz’s win, the Fischer and Hatch victories only have psychological significance. Utah may be the most Republican-friendly state in America this fall, especially with Mitt Romney leading the GOP ticket, and while there was some initial talk that Fischer might be a weak candidate, she’s shown herself to be competent and appealing to the Nebraska’s conservative electorate.

Mourdock, though, is a different story. Indiana will return to the GOP fold at the presidential level this fall, and had Republicans renominated Lugar, their hold on his Senate seat would have been safe. But Mourdock is a Tea Party purist with a penchant for inflammatory and alarming rhetoric; he’s in the news this week for comparing the current battle over upper-income tax rates to slavery. Mourdock may be able to win in the fall, but his nomination has created a plausible path to victory for Democrat Joe Donnelly that otherwise would never have existed. And if Donnelly can grab the seat, it will radically enhance Democrats’ prospects of retaining control of the Senate next year. This is a perfect example of a Tea Party primary win that had psychological and electoral significance.

And there may still be one or two to come that fit this definition. In Missouri, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill will be in serious trouble no matter whom Republicans nominate next week. But the preferred candidate of the GOP establishment, businessman John Brunner, is facing a serious challenge from Sarah Steelman, a former state treasurer who enjoys substantial Tea Party backing and the support of Sarah Palin. If she wins the primary, Steelman will enter the general election as the favorite, but she is probably a riskier option for Republicans than Brunner.

Similarly, conventional wisdom holds that Tommy Thompson, who served as the state’s governor for 16 years, would be the GOP’s best bet against Democrat Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin (although a recent poll suggests otherwise). But Thompson’s lucrative work advising healthcare companies that backed President Obama’s healthcare law has badly damaged him with Republican voters, making it possible – if not likely – that he will lose the upcoming GOP primary to Eric Hovde or former Rep. Mark Neumann, who’s lost his last two statewide races. The Tea Party movement isn’t solidly united behind either man, but there are questions about each man’s general election strength – Neumann in particular.

Arizona is also worth watching. It’s been widely assumed that Richard Carmona, the former Bush 43 surgeon general who is now running as a Democrat, would face off against Republican Rep. Jeff Flake for the seat that Sen. Jon Kyl is vacating. Flake would be favored in such a contest, but Carmona is a credible candidate who would have an outside chance of winning. His odds might improve if Republicans spurn Flake in the Aug. 28 primary in favor of his challenger, businessman Wil Cardon, whose hard-line immigration views might alienate swing voters.

Cruz’s Texas win is a reminder that the GOP’s conservative base may have some more primary season surprises up its sleeve this year. Any further Tea Party triumphs will have a psychological impact on the Republican Party. But some of them could have electoral ramifications too – no small matter, given how precarious the balance of power in the Senate now is.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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