Tea Party Deja Vu

Right-wing fanatics may prevent the GOP from gaining the majority in the Senate.

Mitch McConnell
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Hippocrates, the father of medicine, once said that "life is short, ... opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult." It's an aphorism with which conservatives might wish to familiarize themselves as they make their push to regain control of the Senate.

Right now the GOP has opportunities in spades: The key races in next year's elections are arrayed across a red map – in states that Mitt Romney carried last year. But the party's fanatical wing is engaged in a long-term experiment testing the idea that the GOP must grow by retrenching, offering a pure philosophical vision rather than a big tent. Judgment is difficult indeed.

Not only will the 2014 Senate races be shaped by that experiment, but so too will our short-term governance, or lack thereof.

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To be sure the GOP is well-positioned. Democratic retirements in South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana are widely seen as low-hanging fruit, likely getting them halfway to the six-seat gain they need to control the chamber. Then they're targeting a quartet of red-state Democrats: Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska. Beyond that, GOP strategists still hope to broaden the field into states like Iowa and Minnesota, while Democrats target Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and hope for a Republican fumble in Georgia.

It's a narrow but clear path back to the majority for the GOP and its best opportunity since … well, since 2012, and 2010 before that. These are the wages of the conservative zealot push for party purity: Tea party senators from red states like Texas (Ted Cruz), Utah (Mike Lee) and Kentucky (Rand Paul) and Democratic victories in purple and blue states where the candidates of the fanatical right flopped, like Nevada (Sharron Angle), Colorado (Ken Buck), Delaware (Christine "I'm Not a Witch" O'Donnell), Missouri (Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin) and Indiana (Richard Mourdock). The only tea-party-backed Senate candidates who have won outside red states – former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and current Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – have been repudiated as too willing to deal.

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Which brings us to one 2014 challenge: avoiding tea-party-powered stumbles. The prime candidate for a purity-over-victory primary "triumph" is Georgia, where seven Republicans are looking to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss. The two front-runners are ludicrous Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey. Broun is best known for denouncing evolution and the Big Bang theory as "lies straight from the pit of Hell," while Gingrey is remembered for standing by Akin on "legitimate rape" and suggesting that traditional gender roles be taught in schools. Republicans are concerned that either lawmaker emerging as the nominee, "could allow Democrats a real opportunity" in the state says Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Another primary to watch will occur in Alaska where tea party favorite Joe Miller – who won the GOP nod in 2010, but lost the race when incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski won as a write-in candidate – is aiming to upset Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. A Miller nomination would harm the GOP push for 51 as Treadwell is viewed as a much tougher potential opponent for incumbent Sen. Mark Begich. And while Arkansas won't have a primary, Rep. Tom Cotton, the likely nominee, has flirted with the idea of shutting the government down if President Obama doesn't agree to defund the Affordable Care Act, a position Senate Democrats are using to paint him as an extremist too conservative even for Arkansans.

But the test of the hard-line conservatives isn't just whether they stay within the bounds of electability in red states. It also lies in the extent they can influence, and even unseat, Republican incumbents. McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham are in the fanatics' sights because of their willingness to occasionally move off movement conservatism's default position – "Hell no!" – on all dealings with President Obama and the Democrats. It was McConnell, recall, who cut the deal to avoid the first part of the fiscal cliff at the turn of the year. And Graham has been in the thick of the immigration reform push.