The Tea Party turns five years old this week, and the mainstream media are filled with stories saying it has lost clout and influence. Certainly the unfair assaults on it as racist and extremist have taken a toll, but in terms of where the political landscape is right now, I’d easily take the Tea Party’s tactical position over that of its liberal critics.
For now, the midterm elections are shaping up as a disaster for Democrats. MSNBC host Chris Matthews said last Sunday that “to the Democrats, this election, a rosy scenario is to lose five Senate seats, not six,” the number the GOP needs to pick up to win Senate control. “They could lose ten,” Matthews concluded.
Indeed, Republicans such as Virginia’s Ed Gillespie and Colorado’s Representative Cory Gardner, who had no plans to run for the Senate last year, are jumping in. Gardner told Republican strategist Joe Brettell in a recent interview that he thinks Democratic incumbent Mark Udall can be beaten for one reason: Obamacare. “He’s vulnerable because 335,000 Coloradans have had their health insurance canceled, because he was a rubber stamp for President Obama and displayed a lack of leadership for the state.”
In addition, Republican strategists note that the most inexperienced tea-party candidates are unlikely to win GOP primaries this year, pointing to the flagging fortunes of Steve Stockman in Texas and Matt Bevin in Kentucky. An exception is Republican state senator Chris McDaniel, who is closing in on 78-year-old GOP senator Thad Cochran in Mississippi. But McDaniel is a seasoned candidate and Mississippi a safe seat for the GOP no matter who wins the primary.
It’s a mistake to focus on a single poll at any point in the election cycle, but this week’s New York Times survey is worth noting because a) the size of its survey means a smaller margin of error than in most polls and b) the Times’ pollster has a history of getting results that lean in favor of liberals in Democrats.
If that’s the case, the Times poll spells Trouble for Democrats, with a capital T. Despite the internal fissures within the GOP, Republicans are favored by voters for Congress this fall by 42 percent to 39 percent. A big reason is President Obama’s dismal 41 percent approval rating, with only 38 percent approving of his handling of the economy. Among independents, only 31 percent like his economic performance. That may be one reason why independents now tilt by a decisive 43 percent to 29 percent in favor of Republican candidates for Congress this fall.
Democrats will point to a Times poll result showing that 40 percent of voters think Republicans are nominating candidates who are too conservative. But the same survey shows that 41 percent of voters think Democrats are putting up candidates that are too liberal. The two-party system increasingly chafes at more and more voters.
But it’s Democrats who have to bring their base out, and there are signs that their voters aren’t as enthusiastic about voting this fall. As much as the media focuses on GOP divisions, consider that four out of ten Democrats now think the economy is “fairly bad” or “very bad.” Even on social issues, Democrats are more divided than commonly thought. Only 55 percent of Democrats now say abortion should be “generally available,” with 26 percent supporting greater restrictions on its availability and 16 percent supporting an outright ban.
Obamacare continues to drag down the president’s numbers. A full 42 percent of respondents in the Times poll want it repealed entirely, up from 34 percent in January. Among independents a full 45 percent now support full repeal.
All of this looks like good news for Republicans, until one recalls that the last 30 years have seen many GOP challengers to Democratic incumbents falter. In fact, in the 16 national elections since 1982, the GOP has defeated only 14 incumbent Democrats (less than one per election) while the Democrats have defeated 36 incumbent Republicans. And Republicans will have to beat incumbents to have any chance of taking back the Senate.
That’s why Obama’s approval numbers’ staying low is important to Republican prospects. It gives them their best chance to create a wave election that could topple incumbents. “Over the last decade, just nine Senate candidates have won elections with a president of their party below his national approval average in their state,” National Journal has concluded. “That’s about one success in every ten races.”
On that score, the 2014 Senate playing field is potentially brutal for Democrats. Democrats are defending seats in five states — Alaska, Arkansas, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia — where Obama’s approval rating was at or below 35 percent in 2013, according to Gallup. In four other states where Democrats hold a Senate seat that’s up in 2014, Obama’s approval rating was well below his national average of 46 percent: Louisiana (40 percent), Colorado and Iowa (42 percent), and North Carolina (43 percent). In Oregon, New Hampshire, and New Mexico the president had a 45 percent job-approval rating, just below his national average. That’s a whopping total of eleven Democratic seats that could potentially be in play this November. Only a couple of GOP seats are in jeopardy, and in both Georgia and Kentucky the Obama approval numbers are weak.
The New York Times poll shows that 24 percent of Americans consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party, down from its high-water mark of 31 percent at the time of the 2010 election. But that still represents an energized base of supporters, many of whom are eager to vote. Democrats don’t have anything like that now, given that the “hope and change” pro-Obama fever of 2008 has faded and it’s so much harder to turn Democrats out in midterm elections.
That all helps explain that despite all the premature notices of the Tea Party’s decline this week, there were so many smiles at yesterday’s fifth-anniversary celebration in Washington (sponsored by Tea Party Patriots and Breitbart.com, among others). In politics it helps to be right, and most of the warnings tea-party advocates issued about the Obama administration have been validated by events.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.