Yes, the Tea Party can lose

And they did in two big GOP primaries last night. But the losses may not mean that much

Published August 15, 2012 12:01PM (EDT)

It can seem like every Tuesday that features a Republican primary ends with the same headline: Big win for the Tea Party!

In some instances, the effect of this has been to saddle the GOP with a weak general election candidate, one whose far-right associations put the party at risk of losing a race it would otherwise be well-positioned to win. In many more instances, it hasn’t mattered from an electoral standpoint; there’s no such thing as too conservative in most Republican-friendly states and districts. But in all instances, it’s reinforced the fear that’s lived in every Republican on Capitol Hill the past few years: If I break with the right, I could be the next primary season victim.

Last night, though, offered a reminder that the Tea Party doesn’t always get its way – at least not entirely.

In the night’s highest-profile contest, one of the right’s top targets this year, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, pulled out a 3-point victory in a Senate primary.

Thompson, who left the governorship a decade ago and waged a brief, futile and little-remembered presidential campaign in 2007, had made comments supportive of President Obama’s healthcare reform efforts in 2009 and 2010 and was even cited by Obama back then as an example of a Republican who grasped the basic wisdom of reform. To Obama-era conservatives, these are the marks of a traitor. Nor did Thompson’s decision to transition into lucrative D.C.-based lobbying work after leaving elected politics help him with the Tea Party crowd, which places a premium on political outsiders who lack the typical credentials of the establishment.

Few GOP candidates this year seemed as out of step with the pulse of the party’s base as Thompson, which explains why his early polling lead dwindled as the primary approached. A loss seemed almost inevitable. And yet he survived last night, and will now face Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin in the general election.

A few factors account for the surprise result. One is that Thompson’s opposition was split. If there was a consensus Tea Party candidate in the race, it was former Rep. Mark Neumann, who ran with the support of South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the Tea Party Express and the Club for Growth. But Neumann, who previously lost a Senate race in 1998 and a GOP gubernatorial primary two years ago, was running from behind the entire race and was never able to force a one-on-one contest with Thompson. Instead, businessman Eric Hovde, a political newcomer, spent heavily to portray himself as the true conservative and finished in second place. A fourth candidate, state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, was also in the mix and ran on conservative themes, nabbing 12 percent.

Thompson was also helped by late assists from the state’s two biggest-name conservatives: Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s newly minted running mate, and Gov. Scott Walker, both of whom publicly praised him in the final days of the campaign. (It was actually Walker who defeated Neumann in the 2010 gubernatorial primary.) But what really saved Thompson was simpler: He recognized the danger he faced and did everything in his power to position himself on the right. This didn’t eliminate the baggage he entered the race with, but it kept him from accumulating any more during it. In other words, he pulled an Orrin Hatch.

Another setback for the Tea Party came in Florida’s new 7thDistrict, where redistricting forced two Republican incumbents into a primary. Both John Mica and Sandy Adams ran to the right, but Adams had the obvious claim to the Tea Party mantle. Elected in the 2010 GOP tide, she made headlines by pursuing a federal ban on the use of Shariah Law in U.S. courts and ran with the backing of Sarah Palin. Mica has been in the House for two decades and was vulnerable to attacks over his past use of earmarks. The district’s geography also slightly favored Adams, but when the ballots were counted, Mica ended up cruising to a lopsided win last night.

Last night wasn’t a complete shutout for the Tea Party, though. In another Florida GOP primary, Ted Yoho, a veterinarian making his first bid for office, apparently toppled Rep. Cliff Stearns (who is refusing to concede defeat yet). Yoho’s victory is exactly the sort of inexplicable result that has spooked Republican officeholders for the past few years.

And when you combine that with the circumstances of Thompson’s win in Wisconsin, last night ends up looking OK for the Tea Party. They may not have gotten a “Tea Party wins big!” headline, but they still delivered a message.

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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