Last night was rough for the Tea Party. Sen. Thad Cochran beat the odds and the expectations and defeated Chris McDaniel in the runoff for Mississippi’s GOP Senate nomination. In Oklahoma, endorsements by Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz did little to help T.W. Shannon, who was easily defeated by Rep. James Lankford in the race for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Sen. Tom Coburn. Both seats were all but certain to stay in Republican hands no matter who won, but the tea people really wanted to take down Cochran, and they came so close only to see the race slip away.
The reaction on the anti-establishment right has been maudlin and apocalyptic. Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity were on Fox News last night musing on the need for conservatives to abandon the GOP and start a third party. Erick Erickson drowned his sorrows in metaphors: “At some point there will be more people with knives out to cut the strings than there will be puppeteers with checkbooks. And at some point those people with knives become more intent on cutting the strings than taking the place of the marionettes.”
Don’t despair, guys! Sure, your candidates didn’t win, but overall you Tea Party types are doing a pretty good job at grinding government to a halt and getting incumbent Republicans to act like self-destructive, intransigent fools.
Just consider how far the expectations have been lowered. Writing for the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky argues that liberals and Democrats should be happy that Thad Cochran edged out McDaniel because “sane is better than insane.” That’s undeniably true, and McDaniel would have been a terrible senator. But what does “sane” in this context mean for actual governance? Here’s Tomasky again:
Cochran will never vote for anything Obama wants. No minimum wage hike, no carbon tax, no nothing. I understand that. But he’ll be in there, assuming he wins and stays alive, until January 2021. That is, through what might be Hillary Clinton’s first term. If the GOP intra-bloodbath happens in 2017 after she’s won, Cochran, who won’t be running again and just won’t give a shit, might actually vote for one or two things Clinton asks for. McDaniel, obviously, would not.
That’s the upside of a Cochran victory? We’re nurturing the hope that maybe, years from now, as Cochran stares down the scheduled end of his political career he’ll say the hell with it and throw a few YOLO votes Hillary Clinton’s way. Score one for responsible government.
Even with Cochran in the Senate, the Tea Party is getting the policy outcomes it wants – namely, things Obama wants don't get passed. Greg Sargent pointed out this morning that for all the complaining from the activists in the base that Republicans like Cochran are too cozy with the establishment and the business community, those same Republicans have adopted an agenda that is actually working against business interests. Immigration reform, the Export-Import Bank, infrastructure spending – they’re all business community priorities, but the Republicans are squashing them because of conservative opposition.
As for Oklahoma, it’s pretty silly that there was a “Tea Party” challenge to James Lankford to begin with. Lankford first came to office in the 2010 Tea Party wave – he hasn’t had time to become an entrenched D.C. incumbent. The only sins that Lankford appears to have committed is that he’s a member of the Republican leadership and he voted to raise the debt ceiling, but that was enough for Cruz, Palin and FreedomWorks to swoop in and anoint T.W. Shannon the true Tea Party candidate. Lankford’s victory means a very conservative legislator will likely be heading to the Senate. It was a win for the Tea Party, they just refuse to recognize it.
That gets to the Tea Party’s strategic deficiencies. They pick the wrong battles and mount “conservative” challenges to candidates who are already plenty conservative (the races against Lankford and Rep. Pete Sessions are good examples). They’re also bad at picking candidates – it was McDaniel's unguarded extremism on government spending that left Cochran an opening to appeal to black Democrats, who are being credited with pushing him over the top. When they lose they end up looking like, well, losers.
But overall they’re having the impact they want, even without overwhelming successes at the ballot box. Republicans are getting more conservative, and government is becoming less effective. Again, when Tomasky says “sane is better than insane,” he’s absolutely right, but that only goes so far when the “sane” are being driven mad.