Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Real Story from Tuesday's Results? The Tea Party is a Paper Tiger

The mainstream media are trumpeting Tuesday’s election results as a major victory for the Tea Party movement. That’s only natural. They created the link between the terms “Tea Party” and “movement,” so it’s in their self-interest to keep up the myth of a new, powerful grassroots force. The reality is very different from this narrative, as a quick look at the facts will reveal.

The biggest story, if you believe almost all of the national pundits, is the amazing victory of the Tea Party in backing Rand Paul, the libertarian son of former presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas. Rand Paul won the Kentucky GOP nod for U.S. Senate, and then began to immediately self-destruct by stating that the government shouldn’t force restaurants and other private businesses to desegregate. But that’s a topic for another day.

In his victory speech, Paul declared, "The tea party movement is huge. The mandate of our victory tonight is huge.” That has become the prevailing narrative on Kentucky: the Tea Party won big time by backing Paul. But there are many problems with this story.

First, even if you grant that the Kentucky results are a major victory for the Tea Party (And I don’t. More on that below.), that is virtually the only significant competitive race in the country that the Tea Party can claim.

My home state of Pennsylvania provides fertile ground for the Tea Party. They claim organizations in almost every county. Yet even in the most conservative parts of the state, the Tea Party lost every major race they backed.

Their big push was in the special election in the 12th Congressional District to replace Jack Murtha. The 12th CD is custom made for the Tea Party, being the only district in the nation that voted for John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. It’s a very conservative district, despite its Democratic registration edge.

The Tea Party made its major national push in this race, bringing in yet untold amounts of outside money. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck made this race their priority, hoping to make Republican candidate Tim Burns the second coming of Scott Brown of Massachusetts. They even brought Brown in to campaign for Burns, in case people weren’t tuned in to Fox, et al.

So what was the result on Tuesday in the only race where a Democrat faced a Republican? Democrat Mark Critz won 53% to 45%.

The Tea Party didn’t fare that well in any other race in Pennsylvania. In the gubernatorial race the Tea Party backed Sam Rohrer, a true believer in laissez-faire capitalism and the entire TP agenda. Rohrer lost 69-31%. They backed Peg Luksik for US Senate. Luksik lost 82-18%. Their candidates for Lt. Gov. lost as well. Statewide, the Tea Party was “o-fer.”

In the PA General Assembly, they targeted Republican State Senators and Representatives. They did not unseat one incumbent anywhere in the state. And in my home county, the leader of the Berks County Tea Party, John Stahl, came in 9th out of 10 candidates for a seat on the Republican State Committee.

If you can’t win even one victory in Pennsylvania, then where’s the mandate?

Back to the Rand Paul victory in Kentucky. First, even though Paul was backed by the Tea Party, there were many other factors at play in Kentucky. Chief among those factors was a growing and palpable dislike of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell was seen as the king-maker, pushing his hand-picked candidate Trey Grayson to join him in the Senate. That fact, combined with the general anti-incumbent sentiments among the electorate nationwide was the prime driving force behind the results. In reality, this was more of a loss for Grayson/McConnell than it was a victory for Paul.

The media have been trying to hype this race as the epitome of the anger and disillusionment that is driving people to the polls in large numbers. But then there are those pesky facts to deal with. The Republican turnout in Kentucky’s US Senate primary was a dismal 33.7%. On the Democratic side it was 32.1%.1 These are hardly the numbers that could be considered a mass movement.

The truth is Paul got less than 7.3% of the eligible voters in Kentucky (206,816 voted for Paul out of 2,851,996 registered voters ). Furthermore, Paul got fewer votes than either of the top two Democrats in the race. Jack Conway got 228,531 and second place finisher Daniel Mongiardo got 224,989. These numbers cannot in any way be considered a mandate or a roiling mass movement.

As I stated earlier, the mainstream media have made an investment in the Tea Party. Angry confrontations, funny costumes, controversial rhetoric. From a media standpoint, what’s not to like? The Tea Party makes a good story, so they get lots of press. But the facts of their impact are vastly overstated by reporters and pundits who don’t take the time to look at the actual numbers or ignore them for the sake of continuing the myth.

The real story from Tuesday’s results should be this—the Tea Party is a paper tiger. It is a small but vocal group of disgruntled Republicans who will have little impact in any general election in the fall. It is possible that they will take over many local and state Republican organizations, but they have not, and cannot, win competitive general elections.

-Michael Morrill

1 All numbers can be found on these two pages. All calculations are mine.
KY State Board of Elections Total Registration Numbers
KY State Board of Elections US Senate Results

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