Tea-party Republicans continued to gain influence during Tuesday’s elections in Kansas and Michigan.
Take Kansas, where veteran Republican senator Pat Roberts won reelection — with 48 percent of the vote. The tea-party candidates, a trio of no-name political novices, combined to win 51 percent of the vote. Roberts is going back to D.C., which is obviously important, but he did it by running a negative campaign that capitalized on the personal flaws of his top opponent, Milton Wolf. That’s a perfectly standard way to win an election, but it’s not an ideological mandate for anything.
Wolf, a radiologist who had never run for office, gave the professional politician the fight of his life by running on a free-market platform underlined by self-imposed term limits.
In the same state, Representative Mike Pompeo won a Republican primary against Todd Tiahrt, a former House Appropriations Committee Republican who attempted a return to the House by touting his support for earmarks.
“I helped create and save and keep jobs here in Kansas through their efforts to contract with the federal government,” Tiahrt bragged to his old constituents. Pompeo, by contrast, is the House author of a bill to eliminate all energy tax credits, even the ones favored by businesses in his district. Voters gave Pompeo a 63 to 37 percent victory.
Similarly, Representative Justin Amash (R., Mich.) faced a primary challenge by a candidate from the business wing of the Republican party. Brian Ellis received the Chamber of Commerce endorsement and had a take on the Constitution that didn’t sound very conservative.
“I’m a businessman, I look at the bottom line,” Ellis said, per The Weekly Standard. “If something is unconstitutional, we have a court system that looks at that.”
Amash, for his part, is so determined not to use government to dole out special favors that he refused to vote for a bill authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline.
“I support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and holding it up for over four years (with no end in sight) for political reasons is wrong,” Amash wrote in a Facebook post. “It’s improper, however, for Congress to write a bill that names and benefits one private project, while doing nothing to address the underlying problems that allowed such delays to occur.”
These elections have the potential for long-term significance. First, they’ve strengthened Amash and Pompeo by elevating their national profiles. When the next Senate seat opens in Kansas, Pompeo is in the strongest position to win it. As for Amash, it’s hard to see a more likely contender to win the Republican nomination to challenge Senator Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) when she is up for reelection in 2018, if he wants it (Governor Rick Snyder certainly doesn’t).
Furthermore, the campaign tactics deployed in this election cycle tend to confirm the tea party’s suspicions of establishment Republicans. Senator Thad Cochran (R., Miss.), who defeated a tea-party opponent with the assistance of Democratic voters, seems to have inspired a bit of a trend.
Tiahrt, running in a closed primary, enjoyed the support of liberal money rather than Democratic votes. Every Voice, a campaign-finance-reform group funded by liberals such as MoveOn.org — the same MoveOn that targeted Tiahrt in 2007 — ran campaign ads against Pompeo.
Ellis, for his part, did try to repeat Cochran’s path to success, according to local reports.
“Justin Amash votes no. Nothing gets done. Gridlock. Government shuts down,” said one mail piece. The piece didn’t mention Democrats by name, but it was sent to “multiple individuals who do not typically receive Republican mail — they identify as Democrats and got these flyers,” according to the political blog West Michigan Politics.
That’s an unsurprising tactic for Ellis to use, given the view of business and of the Constitution he articulated during the campaign.
Tuesday’s elections showed that, four years later, there is still a divide in American politics between the tea party and a bipartisan political class that views Washington as a place where opportunities are created for them. For years, Republicans have fought with Democrats about which businesses and interest groups deserved taxpayer largesse. The tea-party voters are doing something very different.
Republican voters used to make decisions based chiefly on a few key endorsements; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Right to Life, and the NRA stand out. Now they’ve changed the vetting process. The tea party espouses a philosophically rigorous, internally coherent view of the role of the government in the economy. It’s a new, odd sort of populism that isn’t asking the government to give them something, and it’s still proving its power.
Various tea-party candidates may be personally flawed, but that’s no surprise, given that they are often insurgents running against the odds. Whether these individual tea-party candidates overcome their political defects to win the elections is almost beside the point. The competitiveness of recent elections shows that the constituency for this ideology is in place.
When a candidate unites these philosophical allegiances with political talent, the Tea Party produces the leading figures of the Republican party: Senators Ted Cruz (R., Texas), Mike Lee (R., Utah), Rand Paul (R., Ky.,), and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), among others.
Given the opportunity, this tea-party wing of Congress has moved past simply standing athwart typical policy priorities and shouting stop. Pompeo’s energy-tax-credit ban is one piece of a conservative reform agenda, championed by Lee, that includes policies touted by potential presidential contenders such as Rubio, Lee, and Paul Ryan.
The tea party, since 2010, has engineered a revolution within the party suggestive of that wrought by Ronald Reagan — and it hasn’t even found its Reagan yet.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.