For nearly four years now the TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party has been a force in American politics. Granted, in its cradle, it was barely a ripple in a sea of money, incumbents, special interests and power elites, but by 2010 it grown into a massive tidal wave that swept out incumbents of both parties, in national, state and local races, in primary and general elections.
After such a showing in the 2010 election cycle, whatever modest activity the TEA Party could generate in the off-year elections of 2011 would seem to be a letdown, but the grassroots activists and deep-pocketed donors who joined forces in '10 really spent much of last year gearing up for the next big round of elections in 2012, when they would get the opportunity to show their strength in a presidential election.
No candidate for president this year was able to win over TEA Partiers en masse (not even Ron Paul, the so-called "godfather" of the movement), but the TEA Party was able to score a historic win in arguably the second-most important election this year when they helped Wisconsin Gov. and champion of the taxpayer Scott Walker (R) survive a recall election, the first governor in U.S. history to pull off such a feat, and they proved critical to the upset victories of Nebraska State Sen. Deb Fischer, Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock and former Texas Solicitor Gen. Ted Cruz in their respective U.S. Senate primaries this year. In Indiana, certainly, anti-Washington sentiment played a role in the downfall of six-term Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) in May and a smattering of other entrenched incumbents in congressional races two years ago. Disdain for politicians who have been in Congress so long that they succumb to that awful mentality that manifests itself in the form of reckless deficit spending, backroom deal-making and that insufferable I-know-best hautere has fueled the TEA Party since its genesis in the Winter of '08-'09. The tactics of branding a candidate with the epithet of "Washington insider" and campaigning as an "outsider" predate the TEA Party movement but have proven effective in advancing so-called "TEA Party candidates".
Of course, every once in a while, we are reminded that there is some crossover between Washington "insiders" and the TEA Party. There are constant reminders, such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and the aforementioned Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), as well as various TEA-Party-affiliated groups like FreedomWorks founded and/or run by former members of Congress. Take last night's primary election results, for example: Four states held primary elections yesterday: Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington. In two--Michigan and Missouri--Republicans chose their candidates to take on vulnerable Democratic incumbents in hotly contested Senate races (Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) is also up for re-election this year but faces a considerably less daunting challenge.), and in both, they nominated candidates who had spent over a decade in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In Michigan, former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, whose 2010 bid for governor had floundered, handily defeated a slew of weaker candidates and will take on two-term Sen. Debbie Stabenow in the general election. Hoekstra, a Dutch immigrant and former Herman Miller executive, represented Michigan's 2nd congressional district (a shard of the lower peninsula along Lake Michigan's eastern shore) for eighteen years. Last month, some super PAC called Prosperity for Michigan released an ad attacking Hoekstra for "voting for millions in earmarks, raising his own pay, adding trillions to the debt" and "raising the debt ceiling repeatedly." This stupid waste of money failed to propel the group's favored candidate, Clark Durant, to victory in the primary and may have just weakened Hoekstra's chances of winning the Senate seat.
Republicans are better positioned to knock off Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri. McCaskill won her seat by a razor-thin margin in 2006 and is arguably the most vulnerable U.S. senator running for re-election this year, so it's no surprise there was a spirited contest in the GOP primary. The TEA Party splintered in that race, and the result was victory for Rep. Todd Akin, who has represented Missouri's 2nd congressional district (west of St. Louis) since 2001. (Interesting factoid: Akin's predecessor in the House, Jim Talent, was elected to the U.S. Senate and lost his re-election bid to McCaskill.) Akin's win came as a disappointment to supporters of former Missouri State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who were hoping for a younger, more attractive nominee, and the family of businessman John Brunner, who spent over $7 million of his own personal fortune on his failed campaign. The latest polls out of the Show Me State have Akin leading McCaskill, albeit within their margins of error.
So, is being a "Washington insider" not the political liability it used to be? Of course not, but this week's primaries show that a candidate can convince voters he's the right choice to take on an entrenched incumbent senator and really change Washington, even if he's been in Washington just as long as--or, in the cases of Hoekstra and Akin, longer than--his opponent...