Is the Electoral Strength of the Tea Party Waning?

The Tea Party originated in response to bank bail-outs, government stimuli, growing debt, and, of course Obamacare. As a result, there was an electoral backlash against the administration and its policies in 2010 when Republicans made gains in the Senate and surged to majority status in the House. However, it is important that we look at the 2010 midterm elections and Tea Party performance in perspective since 2010 is the effectual baseline election year against subsequent elections are compared, judged, and analyzed.

This analysis will focus on the House elections for two reasons. First, the Tea Party is an amorphous grassroots conservative movement that has taken root in the GOP. Since the House is supposed to be closer to the people by design, there is emphasis on the House races. Second, although the Tea Party was certainly good at getting their backed candidates on the general election ballots in Senate races through primary and caucus victories, their electoral strength did not translate into success in the general election. Although there were certainly high profile wins in Kentucky, Utah and especially Wisconsin, there were equally high profile losses in Nevada, Colorado, Alaska and Delaware.

Therefore, the analysis will focus on the House races first in 2010 and then look to see how Tea Party candidates did in 2012. Obviously, before the 112th Congress, there was no Tea Party. It was in the 112th Congress that a Tea Party caucus was founded in the House. There was none in the Senate since a caucus of 4 does not a caucus make. Officially, there were 59 members in that original caucus. However, there were 165 total Tea Party affiliated, endorsed, or financed House Republican candidates in 2010. Of that total, 92 won their elections for a winning percentage of 55.8%. Of the remaining GOP candidates, they had a winning percentage of 58.2%, which is very near to that of the Tea Party candidates. This is the overall, macroscopic view.

The following illustrates Tea Party versus non-Tea Party Republican performance in red states:

Tea Party candidates: 75% winning percentage; 29.5 average win margin; 34.6% win percentage versus Democratic incumbents; average win margin versus Democratic opponent= 11.1 points

Non-Tea Party candidates: 74.7% winning percentage; 34.8 point average win margin; 22.7% win percentage versus Democratic incumbents; average win margin versus Democratic incumbents= 6.8 points

In red states, it made very little difference whether the Republican candidate was Tea Party or not, although it certainly helped in 2010. What can be gleaned from these facts? Obviously, red states are more conservative and a deeper brand of conservatism, such as that espoused by the Tea Party, would resonate more with voters in these red states. In essence, the red states became a little more red in 2010.

In blue states:

Tea Party candidate- 37.9% winning percentage; average win margin of 12.5 points; winning percentage against Democratic incumbent- 6.6%

Non-Tea Party candidate- 46.8% winning percentage; average win margin of 28.7 points; winning percentage against Democratic incumbent- 7.8%

Naturally, there were significant Tea Party wins in blue states, particularly Illinois and New York, against incumbent Democrats. In effect, the Tea Party message resonated in those not-so-liberal districts in blue states while incumbent Tea Party Republicans in blue states won their reelection bids by an average of 24 points. They obviously represented conservative enclaves in these blue states.

Finally, in swing states:

Tea Party candidates- 67% winning percentage; average win margin- 15 points; winning percentage against Democratic incumbents- 55%; average win margin against Democratic incumbents- 7.9 points

Non-Tea Party candidates- 67.9% winning percentage; average win margin- 28.9 points; winning percentage against Democratic incumbents- 19%; average win margin against Democratic incumbents- 11.3 points

This indicates two things: the Tea Party message was resonating to a great degree in swing states, and when non-Tea Party candidates won, they won through the power of incumbency or in liberal-leaning districts. Overall, the Tea Party’s performance was more diffused throughout the swing states.

In the overall sense, Tea Party candidates won 26.6% of the 32.25 million Republican votes cast nationally in the general election. This is very respectable for a movement that was in its infancy and first flexing its electoral muscles. It was an admirable debut, but the media overemphasized this success. We have seen this tendency before from the media. For example, today they portray the GOP as beholden to or a slave of the Tea Party while in days not so long ago, the same accusations were thrown at evangelical Christians and prior to that, former Southern Dixiecrats-turned-Republicans. In the 112th Congress, officially the Tea Party caucus consisted of 59 named members (although there is some quibbling about the actual membership), which is only 13.6% of Congress in total. But, when we throw in the Tea Party affiliated candidates despite their official membership in the caucus, they account for 21.2% of the 112th Congress and only 24.4% of the GOP majority.

Transitioning to the 2012 election, there are two major factors that need to be considered. First, 2012 was a presidential election year and although Obama’s popularity was not as high as in 2008, there was still likely a coattail effect and one would expect it in blue states. Second, redistricting had an effect where red states and districts became redder and the same is true for the blue states/districts. In 2012, there were 5 red state retirements and all these districts were replaced by Republicans, although not necessarily Tea Party candidates. Of the remainder, none lost their reelection bids with 25 of 36 incumbents showing an increase in their performance over 2010. In addition, three new Tea Party candidates were elected from red states.

In the blue states, there were two retirements (both replaced by Republicans) and six electoral losses among the incumbents. However, the six losses were mitigated by two Tea Party pick ups elsewhere in blue states. And seven incumbents saw an increase over 2010 in their win margins while seven also showed declines. In both electoral losses among incumbents, they were replaced by Democrats. But, the Tea Party also picked up 7 seats in swing states.

In the overall sense, in 2012 Tea Party congresspeople dropped from 92 in 2010 to 86 in 2012- a net decrease of only 6 faces. Thus, although they may have lost a little bit of “power” within the Republican caucus and Congress overall, the decrease is rather minimal. While there were again Tea Party losses on the Senate side of note (as in 2010), one cannot make the conclusion that they lost power or influence when it comes to electoral performance from 2010 to 2012 in House races.

But, the entire thing needs to be put into perspective across both elections. Whether Tea Party or not, Republican candidates won roughly the same percentage races as one another- both at about 55-57% of their races. Hence, Tea Party affiliation really did not ensure victory in swing or red states. More importantly, it was not necessarily a liability in blue states. Looked at overall, despite the liberal media claiming a decline in power and electoral success, on balance that conclusion cannot be made. DailyKos, for example, is quick to point out that several Tea Party candidates lost or showed declines in 2012 versus 2010. But 40 of 63 incumbents actually showed increases.

Furthermore, they offer forth as proof the loss of Roscoe Bartlette in Maryland who won his election in 2010 by 29 points and lost by 21 in 2012. On its face, it looks like there was a 50-point swing against him and, by extension, the Tea Party. They leave out the fact that redistricting totally obliterated his district and added vast swaths of liberal territory in Maryland. They point out the losses of Anne Buerkle and Nan Hayworth in New York, but fail to mention their loss margins were certainly less than their win margins in 2010. They mention the loss of Sandy Adams in Florida without telling you it was a primary loss to another Republican who went on to win in the general election and they fail to mention that Alan West lost by slightly less than a point in his reelection bid. Finally, candidates like Howard Coble certainly showed a decline from 2010, but still won by 22 points as his seat was never in danger. In fact, in many cases where there were declines in the win margins, those win margins were still in the double digits in 2012 and safe victories. Democratic branding of Tea Party congresspeople as “out of the mainstream” was not an effective strategy. If one looks where the declines occurred, they were mainly in blue states where Democrats also controlled the redistricting process. It was redistricting that had a greater effect, not the Tea Party’s message.

Finally, in 2012 there were certainly less Tea Party candidates on the ballot mainly because they had performed so well in 2010 which may have been the saturation point. That is, their success was so great in 2010 so that they did not and could not replicate 2010. There was, theoretically, nowhere to go but down. But, losing a net six faces does not a decline make. In fact, given the strains of redistricting in blue states and the associated, yet minimal, coat tail effects of Obama at the top of the ballot, Tea Party candidates- whether incumbents or not- performed better than expected at the House level. With Obama’s approval ratings in the toilet and the Tea Party still very much a vibrant voice in the GOP, 2014 should be an optimistic one for Tea Party candidates.