The conservative outrage movement, whose most visible face is the Tea Party crowd, got to put another notch in their muskets last week. They drove Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to concede the GOP Senate primary to right-wing favorite Marco Rubio, announcing plans to run as an independent instead. Conservatives can put Crist's pelt on their wall next to that of Dede Scozzafava. She was the GOP nominee for a special House election in an historically Republican upstate New York district last November, before Tea Partyers hounded her from the race and the party. That seat is now occupied by Democratic Rep. Bill Owens. Conservative cannibalism opened the door for Owens in much the same way Democrats hope it has for Rep. Kendrick Meek, their likely Sunshine State Senate candidate.
Indeed, the Tea Partyers and their allies—antiestablishment pols like South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and the wingers in the politico-media-industrial complex—have accumulated some RINO (Republican In Name Only—their term for moderates) pelts. But beyond such takedowns, they have proven less able to register a signature electoral victory. Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown's win over Democrat Martha Coakley? Certainly national conservative dollars fueled it, but the number of Tea Party votes cast in Massachusetts is debatable. Coakley also ran an exceptionally tone-deaf race, from speaking disparagingly of Fenway Park to fundraising in Washington days before the election instead of meeting with voters back home. In office, Brown is already irritating conservatives with the kind of moderate votes one would expect from a Bay State Republican.
The Tea Party crowd failed in February to nominate a true believer instead of moderate GOP Rep. Mark Kirk for the Senate race in Illinois. And while 11 House GOP incumbents faced conservative primary challenges in Texas in March, all won easily. So far, the Tea Party's political record doesn't match its hype. Rubio is the rare exception where the movement coalesced. More often Tea Party energy is diffused among competing candidates—a symptom of the movement's tendency to subsume electability to ideology. Electability shouldn't be the only factor, but it provides discipline and focus necessary to elevate a growing movement.
That is not to say that the movement is toothless. They have vigor, they have the media's attention, and they have numbers. In March, the Wall Street Journal reported a 134 percent increase over 2006, in Republicans running in congressional primaries. Most will fail, but there are enough serious backlash candidates to spur talk of a GOP civil war with the outrage gang as insurgents. You can be sure that Republican incumbents like Sens. John McCain in Arizona and Bob Bennett in Utah, along with establishment-backed Senate candidates in California, Colorado, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Nevada, noticed Crist's GOP flameout.
The next battle, and the right-wing insurgents' next opportunity, will take place Tuesday in Indiana, where the GOP will select a candidate for the Senate seat that Democrat Evan Bayh is vacating. Former Sen. Dan Coats was expected to cruise through both the GOP primary and the general election in November. But the wingers don't like him, grousing about his voting record, his establishment support (he is seen as a Washington recruit), and that he had quit in the face of a tough Bayh race 12 years earlier.
And in an angry, anti-Washington, year, Coats looks a bit like a Martha Coakley of the Midwest. He is a registered lobbyist (making more than $600,000 last year from his Washington law firm, according to his financial disclosure records). And a devastating video surfaced in February, of Coats telling North Carolina delegates to the 2008 GOP convention not to "tell the good people of Indiana," but that in the Tar Heel state he had found a "better place where some of these older bones" could reside, and that he looked forward to voting there.
His fundraising has been soft (though Democrats note contributions from at least three dozen current or former lobbyists). He recently loaned his campaign $200,000 and—serious Coakley echoes here—jetted off to Washington for a pair of $1,000-per-person fundraisers in his honor Wednesday, six days before the primary. None of this plays well in Indiana, a state so leery of outsiders that "anybody who may have gone to Washington on an eighth-grade junior high school field trip is automatically tainted," says veteran Indiana political analyst Ed Feigenbaum.
Coats is vulnerable, but the insurgents have, typically, split. GOP gadfly DeMint and others support Marlin Stutzman, a 34-year-old state senator, while Tea Party godfather Ron Paul has endorsed former Rep. John Hostettler, a religious conservative grass-roots favorite. Feigenbaum, who has watched Indiana politics for 25 years, says he's never seen such an inscrutable primary—Coats, Hostettler, or Stutzman could win. The only public poll, released Thursday, had Coats leading with 36 percent to Hostettler's 24 percent, and Stutzman at 18 percent.