After tea party candidates like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul defeated establishment Republicans during the 2010 “wave election,” many conservatives had high hopes it was a harbinger of things to come.
Two years later, has the Empire struck back?
This time around, a lot of incumbents (see Orrin Hatch) and establishment Republicans (see George Allen) seem poised to win. Their conservative challengers — people who, despite their lack of experience, might have caught fire in 2010 — are flailing.
In the presidential race, even Rick Santorum – the man who emerged as Mitt Romney’s most credible conservative challenger — is an unlikely inheritor of the tea party mantle (what with his many votes for Bush-era big government policies).
So what happened?
There isn’t one answer. Instead, a culmination of events conspired to dramatically change the landscape in two short years.
The first thing to confess is that we may have glamorized 2010 a bit. Not everything the tea party did worked out. There were bad candidates like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada, who won primaries (thanks, in large part, to outside groups), but then lost general elections. Meanwhile, Sen. Lisa Murkowski found a creative way to survive (in her case, she lost the primary, but amazingly, won a write-in campaign.)
These missed opportunities — and the push-back that resulted — probably led some conservatives to be a bit more cautious in terms of backing quixotic campaigns.
There’s also this: Politicians adapt. They don’t sit around and wait for the barbarians at the gate to come hatchet them to death. Give a smart politician two years, and he can usually figure out how to survive. Just as major political parties tend to co-opt the message of insurgent third-party movements, smart Republican politicians shrewdly co-opted much of the tea party messaging.
It’s also important to stress just how vastly different a presidential election year is when compared to a mid-term election year. The desire to oust Barack Obama covers a multitude of Republican sins in 2012 — sins that might have disqualified a candidate in 2010.
Meanwhile, timing and luck played a role in determining the GOP field. Some potentially strong conservative candidates (see Jeb Bush) decided to sit out of the 2012 race, while others (see Marco Rubio) weren’t quite ready.
Another difference between this year and two years ago: The presidential race is overshadowing the down-ballot races. This has created a huge challenge for this year’s crop of “tea party” challengers hoping to generate buzz. Presidential races suck up a lot of oxygen. This question is worth considering: Would Rubio have gotten as much national attention were he running in 2012, instead of 2010?
Movements like the tea party are fueled by passion. But what do you do after the thrill is gone — after the rally or protest is over? As anyone who has ever fallen “out of love” can tell you, passion dissipates (which is why it’s best not to base a marriage solely on it.)
Passion is moody. It shows up some days, and sleeps in other days. But money and infrastructure show up every day — which is why (sooner or later) the Empire almost always strikes back.