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Tea Party Versus Establishment Senate Candidates

by: Conservative First

Mon Nov 19, 2012 at 01:51:51 AM EST

One of the arguments you often hear against the Tea Party from liberals and establishment Republicans is that Tea Party candidates cost Republicans control of the US Senate.  But does this claim stand up to scrutiny?  Let's examine race-by-race to determine whether it is true.
Conservative First :: Tea Party Versus Establishment Senate Candidates

Delaware:  There is no question that Christine O'Donnell was a terrible candidate.  It isn't quite so clear that she was Tea Party candidate. The race was mostly ignored until a few weeks before the primary, when many national conservatives endorsed her to stop moderate Republican Congressman Mike Castle (ACU life 52%) from winning.  O'Donnell was more a traditional conservative than a Tea Partier, but I won't split hairs here.

Castle was definitely a stronger candidate, but it is a myth that he was a shoo-in.  The CNN exit poll showed that Castle would have lost to democrat Chris Coons 44-43.  And that's without the democrats having spent millions attacking him, as they undoubtedly would have.  Instead, the left spent a lot of time and effort attacking a Republican who was going to lose anyways.  So even in what would seem to be the strongest case for the anti-Tea Party side, the facts don't support them.

Nevada: Sharon Angle won the Republican primary to face Harry Reid over Danny Tarkanian and Sue Lowden.  She lost by 6% to Reid. Angle was a weak candidate, though not in the same category as O'Donnell.  On the other hand, her primary opponents were hardly strong candidates either.  Tarkanian has now lost four bids for office (state senate, SOS, US Senate, congress).  Lowden was a one-term state senator whose campaign lost steam after derisible chicken-bartering comments.  It is far from obvious that either of them would have outperformed Angle by 6%.  I agree that Dean Heller or Jon Porter would have won, but they chose not to run.

Colorado: Ken Buck beat Jane Norton in the Republican primary before losing to democrat incumbent Ken Bennett.  As far as I can tell, Buck was a decent candidate, but he was smeared as anti-woman for not prosecuting an alledged rapist due to lack of evidence.  Perhaps Norton would have done better, but it is worth noting that she was elected Lieutenant Governor of Colorado on a ticket with incumbent Bill Owens, not on her own.  There is no evidence that she was an electoral powerhouse.

Alaska: Joe Miller beat Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary.  Murkowski ran as a write-in candidate and won the general election.  Murkowski was a stronger candidate, but from what I have heard, Miller still would have beaten the weak democrat nominee.


Missouri: Congressman Todd Akin beat Sarah Steelman and John Brunner in the Republican primary before losing to democrat incumbent Claire McCaskill.  Akin was a bad candidate who destroyed his campaign with rape-related remarks.  But he was not a Tea Party candidate; he found his strongest support from social conservatives.  Steelman had some Tea Party and establishment support, and Brunner had some Tea Party and libertarian support.

Indiana: Richard Mourdock, state treasurer of Indiana, defeated incumbent senator Richard Lugar in the primary 61%-39% before losing to democrat congressman Joe Donnely.  Mourdock was a Tea Party candidate who also had some local establishment support.  He was twice elected state treasurer, winning 62% in 2010.  I am not aware of any widespread claims that he was a weak candidate before the primary.

Lugar had long won by large margins, but he had not faced a serious challenge since first being elected to the senate, and was unopposed in 2004.  He was out of touch with Indiana, had no residence in the state, and ignored clear signs that his campaign was in trouble until it was too late.  He could have (I believe would have) experienced a similar collapse in the general election if he had coasted through the primary.  Joe Donnely could have run to the right of Lugar on guns (Lugar had an NRA F rating), immigration, and possibly foreign policy, just as Mourdock had done.

Incredibly, there is not a single clear case of the Tea Party costing Republicans a US Senate seat.  Possibly some of their primary opponents would have won, but it is easy to imagine fantasy candidates doing better than real-life candidates.  Real candidates are imperfect and make mistakes.

Moreover, the "O'Donnell and Angle cost us the senate" argument is disingenuous because it cherry-picks evidence.  It ignores the Tea party candidates who did win, and the establishment candidates who collapsed.

Tea Party candidates who won:
•Kentucky: Rand Paul was at least as strong as his primary opponent.
•Florida: Marco Rubio beat RINO turned independent Charlie Crist and became a national star.
•Pennsylvania: Pat Toomey pushed out Arlen Specter and narrowly won a dem-leaning state.
•Wisconsin: Ron Johnson found the right appeal to win a swing state.
•Utah: Mike Lee won the primary in a state to Republican would lose.
•Texas: Ted Cruz easily won the general after a tough primary.

Establishment candidates who collapsed/underperformed:
•Colorado governor: Scott McKinnis imploded in a plagiarism scandal.
•Kentucky governor: David McWilliams ran a terrible campaign.
•North Dakota senate: Rick Berg was establishment all the way, and lost a state other Republicans won easily.
•Wisconsin senate: Tommy Thompson ran a listless campaign and lost to leftist Tammy Baldwin.
•Montana senate: Denny Rehberg ran a weak campaign.

It would be just as disingenuous to say "Establishment candidates Berg and Thompson cost us the senate, so we should never support an establishment candidate again!"  That would also be cherry-picking.

Beyond specific races, the Tea Party infused volunteers into the Republican party and provided a boost in many races where no Tea Party candidate was running.  But I doubt this would have happened without Tea Party candidates on the ballot.

The lesson here is not that Republicans shouldn't nominate Tea Partiers, but that Tea Partiers should make an effort to find stronger candidates.  Now that they have proven that they can beat incumbents and establishment favorites, that should be easier to do.  Both Tea Partiers and social conservatives need candidates who are experienced at defending conservative beliefs to unfriendly audiences, not just "preaching to the choir".  They found such candidates in Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Pat Toomey, and Marco Rubio, and they can find and elect more.

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MO establishment and national establishment were split in the primary.

Brunner had more national establishment support than Steelman;
Akin had more MO establishment support than Steelman.
Steelman had somewhat more Tea Party support than Brunner.

43 Male Republican, Maryland Heights, MO Pattonville School District, Maryland Heights Fire District (MO-2). Previously lived in both Memphis and Nashville.

Tea Party
Very few people are saying "Never nominate a TP candidate".  More like, "Don't nominate someone just because they claim TP principles.  They have to be accomplished and non-toxic, too."  

And you greatly overstate your case, to the point of undermining it.  

I've heard it a lot
both in the media and even some times on this site.  Enough that I felt I had to write a response.

MI-6: Fed up with Fred Upton

[ Parent ]
The whole TEA party lost seats thing is media driven
But I wholeheartedly disagree on a few things:

1. DE, Castle was up big in pre-primary polls against Coons. The DSCC would not have spent a dime on that race. The exit polling for a hypothetical race doesn't mean anything, since Castle upset many by not endorsing O'Donnell and having his name dragged through the mud, while stepping away from the limelight.

2. NV, any other Republican that kept their mouth shut would have won that race. Yes, Tark and Lowden were generally subpar candidates, but they were not a historic disaster. Angle lost that race more than Reid won it.

3. CO, Buck wasn't bad, but he certainly blew this one as well. The whole gender deficit thing went back during the primary with some stupid comment he made about boots/high heels. Norton was a better candidate and thus why she will likely run this cycle. CO, is a state that doesn't like candidates that are rough around the edges and given how close that race was, Norton would have likely not been an offensive candidate and won comfortably.

Overall, bad candidates often lose races and good ones often win. It is very simple. And depending on how weak or strong an incumbent is a challenger can have more or less room for error.

30/Male/Married/Father of One/Republican/CA-3

Marco Rubio For President!

1. You are judging this race by pre-primary polls rather than a poll of actual voters taken the day of the election?  Things change over the course of the campaign.  Castle also upset people with his long non-conservative voting record.

2. Lowden lost the primary due to her comments.  Maybe Tark would have won, but after four losses, I'm not confident.

3. What is the evidence that Norton was a better candidate?  If she were a better candidate, why didn't she win the primary?

MI-6: Fed up with Fred Upton

[ Parent ]
Coons got to campaign and Castle did not that's why it doesn't mean anything. Buck barely won the primary and had all of the momentum from outside groups. Buck made that race about petty issues. An inoffensive candidate would have won same goes with NV.

30/Male/Married/Father of One/Republican/CA-3

Marco Rubio For President!

[ Parent ]
We lost that race because Buck allowed the Democrats to turn it into a war-on-women fest. That doesn't happen with Norton.

[ Parent ]
TP verses establishment is nonsense.
Good candidates matter. Angle, Buck and O'Donnell cost us winnable seats in 2010, Thompson and Berg cost us winnable seats in 2012 (I don't blame Rehburg because I'm not convinced we had anyone who would have done better in MT). In retrospect, Berg should never have gotten a free pass in the primary, as a slightly more energetic Republican would have beaten Heitkamp. I do think Newman would have lost to Baldwin, but Hovde or Fitzgerald probably would have done at least as well as Thompson.

Moral of the story: establishment candidates lose when they're lazy, and tea partiers lose when they aren't ready for prime time. Good candidates win.  

male, social, fiscal and foreign policy center-right Republican, in but not of academia, VA-08.

This is absurd
I'm sorry, but there is no way that Dick Lugar could have lots to Joe Donnelly.  Just none.  At all.

Age 22, CA-18 (home), CA-13 (college)

Law and Order Communitarian, Civic Nationalist, Democrat, Francophile.

I'll become a conservative when America becomes a meritocracy

Not even if the residency scandal blew up a week before the election?  Not even with the NRA endorsing Donelly and attacking Lugar?  Not even with Lugar running an inept campaign?  I don't share your confidence.

MI-6: Fed up with Fred Upton

[ Parent ]
Dick Lugar is so beloved that half of the
Indianans on Daily Kos Elections would've voted for him.  

The NRA wouldn't have attacked Lugar; they would have spent their money on other races and ignore this one except for the attack.  They're still run by Republicans, even if they endorse Democrats as a very effective way of keeping pro-gun Democrats in Congress.

Lugar started with a ceiling of 65 to 70 percent.  That's far different than other inept campaigners like Tommy Thompson.

I can't see Donnelly getting over 40% against an extremely popular Republican in a red state.

Age 22, CA-18 (home), CA-13 (college)

Law and Order Communitarian, Civic Nationalist, Democrat, Francophile.

I'll become a conservative when America becomes a meritocracy

[ Parent ]
Wouldn't have factored
That was far more important to Republicans than moderates and it already would've been old news. In the end Scott Brown was the only incumbent who lost. There's no way Lugar wouldn't have lost.  

R, CA-37; hometown: PA-2

[ Parent ]
You mean would've?

Age 22, CA-18 (home), CA-13 (college)

Law and Order Communitarian, Civic Nationalist, Democrat, Francophile.

I'll become a conservative when America becomes a meritocracy

[ Parent ]
My two cents
I'm 100 percent positive Castle, Lugar and Brunner/Steelman would've cruised to double-digit victories. There's not a shred of doubt my mind. I'm also reasonably confident Norton and Lowden/Tarkanian would've ultimately prevailed, too, though not by beefy margins. I agree that Miller probably would've defeated McAdams, though it may have been too close for comfort. I also agree that Berg, Rehberg and Thompson ran sleepy campaigns and that perhaps a more energized and conservative candidate would've proven more effective (though maybe not in Wisconsin, given Romney's woes atop the ticket).

Personally, I'll always be for the more moderate candidate in a Republican primary. I was for Bob Bennett and Brunner, though all of those Missouri candidates were pretty darn conservative. I would've backed Crist over Rubio early on, probably until the Giuliani endorsement.

25, MA-07, Rockefeller Republican. Jeb 2016. Visit me at

We need to nominate the electable candidate
First thing is that what I consider "electable" is much different than what the media and DC punditry thinks is electable.

1. Does the candidate have a history of winning tough areas?
2. Does the candidate have a tendency of putting his/her foot in the mouth? (Akin)
3. Is the candidate talked into running, or does he/she want the job? (Thompson)
4. Does the candidate have a strong base and can get that group to the polls?
5. Does the candidate appeal to independents? That doesn't mean "moderate" which can sometimes lead to double flanking and race skipping. A reputation of integrity, competence, and principles gain independent votes. Mike Rogers and Carl Levin (even though I think he's terrible, he has a good reputation)
6. Can the candidate raise money?

I've voted for both establishment and tea party candidates in the past. I would never vote for an Angle in the primary, nor an Akin. I'd have voted for Mourdock (didn't expect his comment, but would never vote for Lugar) and I'd probably have voted for Tarkanian if I lived there.  

MI-08 - Chairman - Livingston County Republican Party Since 2013 - Opinions are my own and not that of LCRP.  

Partially agree
I think we need to nominate the most conservative electable candidate, something which varies by state. In DE in 2010, that's Mike Castle (sorry, but nobody else wins that seat, and I'd rather have a 50% friend than a permanent enemy). In Utah, it's Mike Lee. In Texas, it's Ted Cruz.

Your criteria are all good, but if there are two such candidates in the race, we should opt for the more conservative one, provided that conservative is still electable (Rand Paul, Joe Miller, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz).

That said, this diary reeks of revisionist history. O'Donnell was funded by the Tea Party Express. Angle and Buck were both darlings of the Tea Party in their states. Each lost eminently winnable races that could have been won by perfectly acceptable conservatives. In 2010, the best GOP year in a generation, that's an unacceptable own goal, ESPECIALLY when those moves cost us the Senate.

It's true that some establishment candidates lose for various reasons, like not having the fire in the belly (Thompson), or relentlessly trying to nationalize a race in states where people really care about local issues (Montana, North Dakota). But the list is much shorter, and skewed by the unfriendly years in which those candidates ran. If we keep thinking the way that the OP does, we're going to be a minority party in the Senate for a LONG time.

[ Parent ]
Generally agree, but
As much as I can't stand Castle's gun grabbing, he's won statewide and was the only chance there. I also had my own problems with Christine O'Donnell history of lawsuit abuse, so it wasn't like O'Donnell was even a Brett Schundler.

Angle and O'Donnell were awful candidates, no way around that. However how much establishment money was wasted trying to protect Specter and Charlie Crist before they switched parties? I think there's blame on both sides, and I get a little defensive with the media blame games and the weaseling from the Steve Schmidt's of the world.

I'll admit to also having a bit of local bias from the Hoekstra race, and even Bouchard in 06 (that wasn't all Bouchard though as NRSC under Dole choked). I'm not sure Clark Durant (Some establishment, some Tea party support) would have won, especially with the unbelievable blue area turnout, but Stabenow wouldn't have gotten a free pass. Now on the same note, Gary Glenn (so-con and some tea party support) would not have won.

MI-08 - Chairman - Livingston County Republican Party Since 2013 - Opinions are my own and not that of LCRP.  

[ Parent ]
I'm with you
I think the NRSC in general should only get involved in primaries when one candidate is clearly nuts and might otherwise lose us a winnable seat.

I wasn't really around for the Butler/Bouchard battle in 2006, but my feeling is that both then and this year, no Republican candidate could have overcome the turnout wave this year to win the seat, other than maybe L. Brooks Patterson or somebody, if he hadn't been in the hospital.

Still, I'm hopeful for when Levin retires in Michigan, and 2018 for Stabenow. I think Candice Miller or Ruth Johnson would be well-positioned to take over the Levin seat, while Rogers will hopefully take the plunge against Stabenow in 2018.

[ Parent ]
also I think that
when NRSC feels they need to get involved, be sure they get buy in from the state GOP establishment; doesn't do much good for NRSC and national establishment to back someone when the local state establishment is backing another candidate.
(In fact when this happens the candidate with state backing includes on his primary ads that he's an outsider)

43 Male Republican, Maryland Heights, MO Pattonville School District, Maryland Heights Fire District (MO-2). Previously lived in both Memphis and Nashville.

[ Parent ]

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