The GOP has a Senate problem. Everyone knows it because it has been front and center in the last two election cycles. Despite a favorable political climate in 2010 and a map tilted their way in 2012, Republicans have failed to make much headway toward retaking the Senate (the party is only up five seats from its 2009 low of 40 senators).
Conservative and Tea Party-aligned groups, along with skewed primary voter turnout, have made it difficult for electable candidates to either emerge from the primary process (Mike Castle in Delaware, Richard Lugar in Indiana, Sue Lowden in Nevada) or to win unscathed (Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin).
In terms of electoral politics, Wisconsin isn’t the same as Nebraska. And Delaware isn’t really all that similar to Texas. That should be obvious, but the Tea Party seems unwilling to recognize it. Its position is that if Rand Paul can win in Kentucky, Christine O’Donnell should be able to win in Delaware. Unfortunately for Tea Partiers, that simply isn’t true. And their outlook is helping Democrats push the Senate further and further away from conservative positions on tax issues.
If Republicans thought that the Tea Party would be subdued after a disappointing 2012 performance in Senate and House races, they should think again. Almost immediately after West Virginia Rep. Shelley Capito announced her intention to run for the Senate seat of Jay Rockefeller (who probably will not seek reelection), conservative groups denounced her bid. The Club for Growth called Capito an “establishment candidate” (whatever that means).
What do conservatives have to lose by electing more establishment Republicans to the Senate? Capito is a quality candidate. She comes from a powerful political family in West Virginia (her father is former Gov. Arch Moore). She won her district with 70 percent of the vote in 2012. And Rockefeller is vulnerable. West Virginia, while still leaning Democrat locally, has turned further and further away from the national Democratic Party. The Democrats haven’t won the state’s electoral votes since 1996.
But the Tea Party could easily derail Capito’s candidacy, just as it did with Castle in Delaware and Thompson in Wisconsin. The Club for Growth will attack her as not taking a hard enough line on taxes and spending as a moderate member of the House.
The question is what these groups, and those that are more conservative than Capito, hope to accomplish. Do they really think they are helping promote a more right-of-center agenda in Washington by derailing GOP chances to win purple and blue state Senate seats?
The reality is that by promoting candidates such as Richard Mourdock in Indiana, O’Donnell, Angle, Todd Akin in Missouri, and Linda McMahon in Connecticut (the 2010 version who beat former Rep. Rob Simmons), Tea Party groups and the Club for Growth are helping promote liberal tax policy in Washington. They are weakening the case for a full extension of the Bush tax cuts. They are harming any chance of seeing the weakened estate tax permanently put into place. And they are ensuring that the tax expenditures that Democrats value are more likely to survive, while deductions and credits for more right-leaning taxpayers could be scaled back.
As Washington becomes more partisan, every Senate seat is key, and it is hard to see how conservatives are better off with left-of-center and liberal senators instead of right-of-center or moderate Republicans.
Do Tea Party groups really think that if Castle were the junior senator from Delaware instead of Chris Coons, he would be voting with President Obama to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for those making over $200,000? Would Lugar have voted for a bill that raised tax rates? If Capito were in the Senate, is she really just as likely to support higher taxes as Rockefeller?
The Tea Party and conservative groups have steadily hurt Mitch McConnell’s ability to bargain with the president over the last four years. The Republicans’ failure to get to 49, 50, or even a majority of 51 seats in the Senate only makes it easier for Obama and congressional Democrats to lobby for increased revenue to be a bigger part of any fiscal cliff deal or grand bargain on deficit reduction. Ultimately it’s very difficult to see how that helps control government spending or keep taxes low – positions that are supposedly at the core of the Tea Party movement.
On the Senate side, it seems that the Club for Growth and the Tea Party are effectively working to promote Democratic tax policy, making it more likely that taxpayers will face higher tax rates and fewer deductions in the future.