The Decline and Fade of the Tea Party

2012 is shaping up to be the cycle in which the establishment strikes back.

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Remember the Tea Party? It was all the rage back in '10, inspiring fear in establishment Republicans and loathing in Democrats. The movement became the conservative face of voter anger, taking down incumbents and party favorites in primary after primary.

The net effect was an energy surge for the GOP, though results were mixed in a state by state accounting. Tea Party activism was no harm, no foul in Senate races in Florida, Utah, and Kentucky. But the fringe nominees the movement installed almost certainly cost the GOP the Senate seats in Delaware and Colorado and helped preserve Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada.

But while the Tea Party undoubtedly—and unfortunately—remains influential within the party, for a number of reasons it won't have the same driving, central role in GOP primary politics. Indeed, if 2010 was the year of the Tea Party, 2012 is shaping up to be the cycle in which the establishment strikes back.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

Start with this year's crop of GOP incumbents. The two most centrist of the bunch, New Englanders Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Olympia Snowe of Maine, would seem prime targets for the Tea Party's urge to purge moderates. But Brown, who was a Tea Party hero before behaving in office like, you know, a Massachusetts Republican, is largely being ignored by the movement, getting neither a primary challenge nor much support.

Snowe presents a microcosm of the taming of the Tea Party. She seemed a sure target coming into the cycle, with the Tea Party getting credit for electing Maine Gov. Paul LePage and with state polls showing that many Republicans thought she didn't belong in the party. But having seen the carnage of 2010, she has assiduously courted conservatives, eschewing her centrist apostasies (a rapprochement aided by the fact that her late husband helped LePage as a youth, a debt the new governor repaid with an endorsement). At the same time, voters have seen the Tea Party in office—specifically the GOP's debt ceiling hostage crisis—and have been rightfully turned off. "There were people saying, 'Yes, I think we should default,' and there were the rest of us saying, 'You're insane,' " Andrew Ian Dodge, Snowe's long-shot primary challenger, told the Washington Monthly. "Now I'm emphasizing my Tea Party links even less because a lot of people think they are crazy people who almost drove us off a cliff." Dodge was the founder of Maine Tea Party Patriots.

[Read Robert Schlesinger, Mort Zuckerman, and other U.S. News columnists in U.S. News Weekly, now available on the iPad.]

Indeed, experience with the Tea Party has turned voters off. Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report, argues that a large number of Republicans who cast anti-establishment, Tea Party votes regret their decision, thanks to the likes of Christine O'Donnell and, one supposes, the debt ceiling fiasco. That kind of hindsight is one reason for the Tea Party's diminished status.

Another is that incumbents like Snowe went to school on the lessons of 2010. Sen. Orrin Hatch watched his Utah colleague, Sen. Bob Bennett, get outmaneuvered as Tea Party forces stacked the state convention and denied him renomination. Hatch has toughened his rhetoric, raised more than $6 million, and scored his first perfect 100 rating from the American Conservative Union. He also persuaded Rep. Jason Chaffetz, his toughest potential challenger, to not enter the race. He's still likely to face a challenge from state Sen. Dan Liljenquist—"Hatch is in significant trouble," says Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report—but he won't get ambushed the way Bennett did. Neither will Indiana's Richard Lugar. Polls show he's vulnerable, but he has already raised more than $4 million in his race against State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who has pulled in less than $1 million. There's a good chance the Tea Party won't take down a single Senate incumbent this cycle.

[See the GOP's top Senate targets for 2012.]