Last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his Virginia GOP primary against Tea Party-backed candidate Dave Brat. Cantor lost badly, spending more on statehouse dinners than his opponent’s total expenditures, and receiving fewer votes than in his 2012 election. What is remarkable about this particular Tea Party victory is that it is remarkable at all – an underfunded unknown defeating a well-situated incumbent with a near-spotless record in the eyes of his party. Brat was given only cursory consideration in the national media, since he was neither a “serious” threat or a particularly crazy challenger (Idaho, anyone?). The merciful calm surrounding the race was not to last, however. Immediately, both sides, (or all three sides, if the Republican establishment counts) weighed in on the results with the predicable cries of euphoria and despair. Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz claimed that “Tonight’s result in Virginia settles the debate once and for all — the Tea Party has taken control of the Republican Party. Period.” Actually, no. It means the Tea Party has taken control of the Republican electorate in that Virginia district. However, if the powers that be continue to hype these instances out of all proportion, they just might succeed.
The Tea Party’s power comes from their overblown coverage. This was true during their ascendance in 2010, when both conservative and liberal media giants went out of their way to highlight the vast good or evil this relatively minor movement was going to do. They got name recognition. They got powerful backers. And most importantly, they got a clearly defined political “brand” that the later Occupy movements never fully developed. That is to say, the Tea Party became clearly defined as the right of right movement that was going to challenge both wrongheaded liberal policies and the cowardly republican mainstream that dared compromise over key issues. They mustered that brand to inforce gridlock in the face of government shutdown, despite their small numbers. Other republicans became terrified of an organized effort to unseat incumbents who dared to even look left of the aisle. That would be supporting all the ills of big government, all the problems the Tea Party promises to fix. The Tea Party owns discontent. They do not own the Republicans. Yet. One race, albeit an historic one, does not grant them actual control of anything. They were handily defeated in other important races, including a primary challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, reversing the trends of 2010 and 2012. The Tea party caucus has never had more than a third of the Republican majority in either the House or the senate.
Now, let me be clear, I am not saying that that the effects of this upset will be any different than if it had given the Tea Party actual control of the Republicans. Seeing such a “comfortable” candidate unseated by a primary challenger will keep many Republicans who might have stepped up their defiance of the fringe in line, cementing gridlock. Or, possibly, this will open up the district for the democratic candidate, however unlikely as that may be. But this is not the result of the Tea Party’s own political validity, but rather their monopoly on discontent with Washington via the the media. And Eric Cantor’s failure to recognize his campaign weaknesses. Dave Brat won the election, wich deserves attention. He did just unseat the House Majority Leader, after all.
But the Tea Party as a whole gains little tangible power form his victory. Brat’s victory replaces one hardliner with another, albeit one slightly more nutsy on immigration reform. What they do gain is compensation in the media and the minds of their fellow congressman for their poor showing in the other primaries. One can only hope that their fellow conservatives will awake to the twin realities of inevitable challenges from Tea candidates and the possibility of defeating them. No matter how hard a Republican toes the line, they will always be vulnerable to discontented voters as long as they allow one group to claim outsider status. How long until Republicans begin pointing the finger right back in the Tea Party’s face and say “You’ve had four years of your way, and all you have complished is grinding the gears of this government to a complete halt. You are insiders now, and your de-facto leadership has wrecked our ability to govern at all. You are the problem with Washington now.”? When the new Tea Party incumbents face their own serious challengers in the primaries, what will their defense be? When we all acknowledge the difference between wanting change in government and the power of this failed movement, where will we be? When we realize the only thing keeping these people in power is our refusal to nail the lid down, what will we do? Maybe, just maybe, we let them slide into their well-earned grave and get back to to the business of governing.