Don’t Forget to Thank Your Local Tea Partier

For the past six years everyone has known 2012 would be a very tough year for Senate Democrats. They would have to defend 23 U.S. Senate seats while Republicans would have to defend only 10 seats. Why is this so lopsided? We can infer that 2006 was a bumper year for Democrats, and indeed it was. As you may recall, after six years of essentially one-party control of all branches government, the voters were suffering from a severe Republican hangover. Voters fled the GOP and Democrats retook both houses of Congress. Six years later, 2012, Democrats now have to pay the price for that victory. Or do they?

The answer to this question is a surprising no. How can that be though? 23 Democratic seats to defend against just 10 possible pick-up opportunities. Plus, many of the seats Democrats need to defend are in such conservative bastions as North Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska. How do Democrats have any hope of retaining the slim 53-47 lead they currently have over Senate Republicans? The answer to this question is the Tea Party.

The Tea Party movement has been quite successful if success is measured by taking over the local parties and nominating ideologues who pass the strictest of purity tests. The result of this has been a rightward shift in a party that was already very far to the right by historical standards. And there have no doubt been some success stories for tea party candidates like Rand Paul (R-KY) , Pat Toomey (R-PA), and Ron Johnson (R-WI).

However, the downside of the Tea Party movement (if you’re a Republican) is that the Tea Party movement has nominated people so ideologically pure that no person outside the Tea Party can palate their beliefs. This has created a phenomenon whereby we see races that should be reliably Republican suddenly up for grabs or even lean Democratic.

In Missouri, for example, incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill was down by 10 points in every statewide poll three months ago and many had written her off. That was, however, until her opponent, Rep. Todd Akin, announced we needed to distinguish “legitimate rape” from apparently non-legitimate rape, and realize that women’s bodies have a mechanism to shut down the reproductive process if they are raped. The polls now indicate Missouri will be returning McCaskill back to the U.S. Senate for a second term.

Similarly, Indiana’s Senate race was on no one’s radar until last week when Republican candidate Richard Mourdock said we needed to understand that when pregnancy comes about through rape, it was God’s intent that the act take place. The Indiana Senate seat would have been a lock for Republicans had the Tea Party Republicans not ousted long time conservative (but not ultra conservative) Richard Lugar in the primary. Now the race is considered a toss-up.

These two races, and the others like it, are reminiscent of 2010 when despite it being a great year for Republicans, some unpopular Senate Democrats amazingly held onto their seats. They were able to do so because people simply could not stomach the Republican Tea Party option; think Sharron Angle in Nevada (Harry Reid got so lucky) or Christine O’Donnell in Maryland (“I am not a witch”). It is these fringe candidates that allowed Democrats to retain the Senate in the wake of the 2010 GOP tidal wave, and the newest version of these crazies is likely why Democrats will retain control of the Senate in 2012.

From a policy standpoint, the Tea Party is a frightening contingent of leaders that may cause very real damage to our country (e.g., playing chicken with the nation’s debt ceiling). But from a purely political standpoint, Democrats should start writing those thank you letters now to their local tea parties.

– Dylan

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