It's Too Soon to Write Off the Tea Party

Extremism lost in Tuesday's elections, but tea partiers remain popular in their districts.

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Don't write the tea party's obituary just yet. Despite historic victories over tea party extremism in Tuesday's elections, we haven't seen the last of tea partiers.

First, the good news. Effectiveness triumphed over extremism on Tuesday. Voters in New Jersey and Virginia elected governors who appeal to the great bipartisan middle by moving beyond partisanship to "get things done" for the people. In Virginia, even Republican leaders endorsed Democrat Terry McAuliffe because he demonstrated cooperation across the aisle, including helping to secure Democratic votes for a bipartisan state transportation bill. McAuliffe's success in presenting himself as non-partisan is notable given that he once served as national chair of the Democratic party and recently flaunted his poor rating from the NRA.

Extremism lost out. In contrast to McAuliffe, Ken Cuccinelli focused on a divisive social agenda that was too extreme for purple state Virginia, where a full third of the voters are independents. He inflamed Latino opposition with comments that compared immigration policy to rodent extermination, and offended women by introducing legislation to make divorce more difficult and to confer "personhood" on fetuses, which experts say would have outlawed common forms of birth control, including the pill.

Cuccinelli also alienated purple state voters by pursuing an extremist social agenda as attorney general (leading the legal fight against the Affordable Care Act, investigating climate scientists, aggressively implementing anti-abortion regulations and pursuing sodomy laws). More than half of Virginia voters called Cuccinelli "too conservative" on most issues, while finding McAuliffe "just about right," in a Washington Post poll. (Cuccinelli's social agenda blinders prevent him from recognizing that his opposition to Obamacare didn't help him narrow the vote gap in the days leading up to the election. His tea party allies are similarly blinded, as evidenced by our election night debate on The Kudlow Report; they remain enamored of their social agenda and don't recognize it is divisive.)

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

The final straw may have been when tea party leader Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas came to Virginia to campaign for Cuccinelli. Cruz, the architect of the federal government shutdown, only served to remind Virginians of Cuccinelli's adoration for the shutdown politics the tea party pursues – particularly damaging given how many Virginians' livelihoods are tied to the federal government (32 percent of Virginian voters reported that their households were affected by the shutdown). Nevertheless, one cannot chalk up the Virginia results to the shutdown, since McAuliffe's lead in the polls over Cuccinelli dates back to July, before the shutdown.

Like McAuliffe, New Jersey incumbent Republican Governor Chris Christie credibly made the case to voters that he is an effective, bipartisan leader. Christie won praise from blue state voters for his willingness to collaborate with President Obama on the cleanup after Hurricane Sandy and on an expansion of state Medicaid through Obamacare. Sure, he's conservative (anti-choice, anti-gay marriage, anti-labor), but Christie appealed to voters as someone willing to set aside partisanship to get results – proving that a Republican can win a blue state if he prioritizes effectiveness across party lines and plays down his social agenda.

A third victory for the middle came in a special primary for an Alabama House seat, where the Republican establishment called in heavy guns and large corporate dollars to ensure mainstream Republican Bradley Byrne beat tea party radical Dean Young – proving that even conservative House districts can reject tea partiers, so long as the Republican establishment fights hard enough.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the tea party.]

And in New York City, a populist liberal – Bill de Blasio – was heartily elected over his business-minded Republican opponent, although the real race, in this blue city, occurred during the Democratic primary.

Combine Tuesday's losses with news of a Republican PAC to combat tea party primary candidates and national polls showing diminishing support for the tea party, and you might well think the tea party is facing a death knell. Especially when you add in the prediction by demographic pollsters that the tea party will eventually die out with the aging of its largely older supporters.

But, before you write that obituary, remember that many House Republicans who championed the government shutdown are hearing only praise back home. Given gerrymandering in 2010, most House Republicans now represent ideologically conservative districts. Only 17 Republicans represent districts that voted for President Obama in 2012. As social scientists have pointed out, group polarization only intensifies as group members reinforce each other's views and hear fewer alternative views. And if they "live" in a conservative news bubble, then, as conservative journalist Robert Costa put it, "the conservative strategy of the moment, no matter how unrealistic it might be, catches fire."

These House conservatives aren't going anywhere, and they may well launch another shutdown and threaten debt default this winter. Nevertheless, Tuesday reminds us that extremism can be a liability on election day.

  • Read Peter Roff: What the Pundits Are Getting Wrong About Ken Cuccinelli, Chris Christie and the GOP
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