With Ted Cruz's Tuesday victory over David Dewhurst, one thing is for sure: the Tea Party is alive.
Cruz will square off against Democratic challenger Paul Sadler in November, when Cruz is easily expected to win the Senate seat. Texas has not elected a Democrat since 1994.
After the nation's most expensive non-presidential campaign in history, Cruz's Tea Party victory over the favored son of the Texas Republican "Establishment" contributes to a growing number of wins for the grassroots organization across the country. Tea Party Republican nominations for US Senate seats have been snatched up or defended in several states across the board. Among them are the Tea Party favorite Rand Paul (Ky.), as well as Deb Fischer (Neb.), Josh Mandel (Ohio), and a tight race between Todd Akin, John Brunner, and Sarah Steelman (Mo.), all of whom enjoy the movement's support.
Cruz's victory over the Establishment is symptomatic of a small resurgence of the Tea Party, which has seemed to evolve into a new beast; one in which its children are beginning to devour its parents. In addition to targeting Democratic seats, the movement has turned on its moderate political allies in an effort to purge compromise from the halls of the US Congress. In a sharp contrast with the political goals of 2010, candidates professing adherence to the purist, economic doctrine have moved even farther to the right. They charge that the Establishment conservatives in Congress have proven too moderate to effectuate real and radical political change in Congress.
Despite the relative slip in its popularity since 2011, Tea Party candidates have managed to unseat a few high-level Establishment Republicans during this season's primaries. Victims include Sen. Richard Lugar from Indiana, who ended his 36-year career, and 3-term Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah. The Tea Party-affiliated candidates also appear to be targeting state-level senate seats of their own party. Kansas, thought to be the poster child for this inner-party showdown, will hold its Republican primary on August 7. The candidates are hoping to unseat senate leaders Steve Morris and Jay Emler, along with a dozen other state senators.
In 2010, the populous, decentralized movement professed a clearer vision of what was wrong with the country and how it should be fixed. Fueled by mounting anger toward the federal government, the movement advocated cutting taxes, simplifying the tax code, reducing government spending, eliminating the federal deficit, and a strictly adhering to the Constitution. It was a doctrine of utopian, liberal economics, with Grover Norquist declaring he wanted to "cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." The Tea Party's epic, no-compromise battle culminated with the Debt Ceiling Crisis during the summer of 2011 when it blocked a routine move to raise the debt ceiling. The congressional freshmen, in a bold move of political naiveté, would not allow Congress to pay back money it already owed in an attempt to immediately cut spending. It led to the loss of the American AAA credit rating for the first time in its history.
Since the crisis, the Tea Party platform has evolved into something more unpredictable.
In addition to eliminating moderate Republicans, the movement has sanctioned racist and fear-mongering rhetoric by top Tea Party leadership. Though the movement is not a stranger to charges of co-opting racist behaviors, signs, and comments, it appears that the leadership has fallen prey to its own fringe. In a strange, conspiracy-laden attack, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) accused Huma Abedin, the top aid to Secretary Hillary Clinton, of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the tortuous chain of separation from any remote possibility of connection with the Islamist group, Bachmann has doubled down on her claims, indicating that investigations must be undertaken in the name of national security. Bachmann has also stated that the President and liberals in general hold anti-American views and that members of Congress should be investigated to see which ones are pro- or anti-American. Bachmann is tapping into McCarthy-era tactics of political witch hunts, whether true or mere figments of the dusty corners of her imagination.
This new endorsement of fringe ideology has recently highlighted the intense divide between the Establishment and the Tea Party.
Almost as quickly as Bachmann sent her request to several departments calling for an investigation into Islamist infiltration, she was denounced on the Senate floor by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), House Speaker John (Ohio), who defended Abedin's credentials and service as "sterling" and said that the allegations were "pretty dangerous." The responses from Tea Party-aligned officials, however, were either quiet disagreement, as with Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), or boldface endorsement, as with former-Speaker Newt Gingrich. Rubio claimed that "every member of Congress has a right to express their opinion and every member of Congress is held accountable for their opinion, if they’re right or if they’re wrong." Gingrich, who enjoys strong Tea Party support, went further, saying that the allegations are "totally legitimate."
Other Tea Party leaders, such as Louie Gohmert (Texas) and Wes Harris, leader of the Original North Phoenix Tea Party, backed Bachmann's allegations. In response to Sen. John McCain's defense of Abedin, Gohmert called him "Numbnuts." Harris took Bachmann's claim to a more extreme level, declaring that Muslims cannot be good citizens or serve in the government, and that Islam is a religion of extremism. He went on to tell the Arizona Capitol Times that "anyone that is a Muslim is a threat to this country, and that’s a fact" and "Is she a Muslim? Is she an active Muslim?” I rest my case. That’s all she needs to be.” Harris is currently collecting signatures to remove McCain from office, saying in a blog: "Go to hell, Senator, it’s time for you to take your final dirt nap.”
What is going on in the Republican party? Nothing short of a tacit civil war. As moderate Republican, Tim Owens (Kan.) puts it, "It is all about taking over the state in a conservative vein and eliminating as much as possible anybody who didn't agree with their philosophical ideas" The battle for the voice of the Republicans appears to have shifted inward and rightward. The conversation has moved away from promoting a simplistic, purist views of economics to something more sinister that is slowly creeping back into the political conversation. These Tea Party leaders, though elected to help find solutions to correct the economy, have instead settled on gaining cheap political points by playing on the still-fresh terrors of 9/11. It has reignited and legitimized the prejudices and distrust in our society just as those wounds are beginning to heal.
The endorsement of the racist fracture within the Tea Party by its leadership is part of a larger problem facing the Republican party. The movement has infiltrated the rank and file of the Establishment members, essentially threatening to destroy them for their moderate stances on economic and social issues and willingness to compromise with Democrats. It has threatened these congressmen with broad, general, and angry perceptions of grievances in their home districts. The movement has radicalized their behavior to survive political cannibalism by shifting their voting habits further to the right. The Tea Party, with its generally charismatic, energetic, and youthful leadership, has galvanized the reorientation of the Republican Party, threatening well-respected Establishment senator like John McCain.
Cruz's victory on Tuesday is a testament to the unrelenting power of political rhetoric of the Tea Party movement and the condemnation of moderation. Besides the large swaths of outside funding Cruz received, his persistent rhetoric of painting Dewhurst as a timid, compromising moderate and Washington insider no doubt helped propel him to victory. He was able to tap into the populist, anti-establishment anger that had seemed to be on its way out of politics. With the nomination of Ted Cruz and his almost certain victory in November, many worry that the Tea Party's heyday is far from over. As Democratic contender Paul Saddler said in his nomination acceptance, "Tonight, I stand alone as the only nominee of a major political party in Texas because the Texas Republican Party has been hijacked by the Tea Party."
The Tea Party, its racist fringe, and the Establishment Republicans are dueling to be the spokesperson of the Grand Old Party. Compromise between the factions is an anathema. Will the Tea Party continue to devour the Establishment and drag its remnants through another debt ceiling debacle, throwing Americans into another fiscal crisis? Or, ironically, will the movement be devoured by the racist fringe monster its leaders have nurtured, ultimately becoming a haven for bigotry and new-aged, McCarthy-style politics? With the hurl of insults, damning accusations, the recall attempt, and the general condemnation of compromise, it is hard to see how this inner-party turmoil benefits Americans.
The timing for an identity crisis in politics cannot come at a worse time. With unemployment at 8.2% and an anemic recovery from the Great Recession still plaguing the system, the Republican party has chosen the worst time to stick to purely ideological guns. The politics of who can most extremely conservative will only move to turn off voters this November, who are looking for Congress to compromise and support the economy. At a 17% approval rating and the embarrassing distinction of the worst Congress in history, members cannot afford to paralyze the political system further.
At this most crucial economic juncture in American history, we need politicians who can overcome ideology, embrace compromise, and negotiate common sense policies to complex, and multifaceted economic problems. How will the election of Ted Cruz and other Tea Party contenders affect the political landscape in 2012? The jury is still out, but one thing is for certain: It sure is not a step toward the middle.