As a substantial portion of the nation either cringes over or celebrates the past week’s political events, one is left wondering what it all means. Is the Tea Party movement really a viable alternative for the voter who is fed up with the status quo in Washington? What does this mean for the future of the Republican Party? Or the Democratic Party, for that matter?
Christine O’Donnell’s decisive victory over veteran Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware’s GOP Senate primary sent shockwaves across the political landscape. Castle, representing Delaware’s At-large congressional district since 1993 and a direct descendant of Benjamin Franklin, has a long and distinguished record within the Republican Party and was viewed as a sure-fire bet to win the election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Joe Biden. Such a sure-fire bet that the GOP didn’t even take his opponent seriously, to their discredit. But is this a sustainable movement with long-term ramifications, or simply a knee-jerk response to what much of America sees as a fat, bloated Washington bureaucracy which continues to spend money as if it grew on trees while the rest of the country is mired in 10 percent unemployment?
Laughed at, particularly by Democrats, in its infancy as a bunch of rednecks just trying to make some noise, it has even been labeled racist by some. The Republicans chuckled, as well, and took every opportunity to use the Tea Party to their advantage against Obama-led Washington, but never really accepted it as a part of the mainstream party platform.
But who’s laughing now?
While the Democrats try to portray this as a civil war within the Republican Party, the Republicans are now backtracking in their stance on the Tea Party and its relevance. The GOP had no problem using the Tea Party to illustrate America’s dissatisfaction with the current administration, but now that the movement has actually beaten one of their mainstream candidates, suddenly it has become a threat to established order.
"The good news for Republicans is the Tea Party is capturing the anti-establishment energy in America. The bad news is that includes the Republican establishment," said Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain. The Republican Party — whose leaders had cast O'Donnell as unelectable and unstable — fear that the vote in Delaware might symbolize an identity crisis within the GOP that could complicate its push for big gains in the fall elections that will decide control of Congress. The Republicans, in their typical arrogance, have cultivated an herb that is now poisoning their garden.
The Democrats, nettled in the beginning by the scope and depth of the Tea Party movement, now see it as an opportunity to further erode the Republican position in Washington. In a year when Republicans need a net gain of 10 seats to reclaim control in the Senate, the Tea Party's successes in states such as Nevada and Colorado could give Democrats targets they see as easy to attack. Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democratin charge of his party's effort to hold its Senate majority, said chances have improved because Republicans have "run extremists instead of mainstream candidates."
Is there indeed room in the GOP platform for the Tea Party faithful? Other movements within the party are already seeing the Tea Partiers as a potential threat. The movement’s consistent spotlight on fiscal issues is seen as a possible distraction that will take focus, and funding, away from issues that have in the past been a solid plank in the Republican platform. The GOP’s most loyal conservative activists are now taking a long, hard look at the Tea Party and what it might mean for their respective causes. At the Values Voter Summit in Washington over the weekend, the concern that the Tea Party's focus on fiscal issues might sideline others became a major theme. The meeting is an annual gathering of Christian conservatives that this year featured panels speaking out against gays in the military and same-sex marriage.
Indiana Republican Mike Pence, surprise winner of the group’s presidential straw poll argued strongly against "those who would have us ignore the battle being fought over life, marriage, religious liberty." O’Donnell, the newest star in the Tea Party movement, went out of her way to establish her credentials in the values arena. “I am one of those who have toiled for years in the values movement,” she said.
So where does all of this leave us? It is BOTH parties that have much to lose if the Tea Party movement does indeed gain a foothold in the American political landscape. The Democrats cannot shake the image of tax-and-spend liberals, a less than perfect way to be viewed in the current economic environment. Regardless of what the Tea Partiers do within the Republican Party, the Democrats still should be worried that they don’t get carried out along with the GOP waste. The Republicans, on the other hand, must come to an agreement on the Tea Party’s relevance within their party and what its role will be in the future. To play games with the American voter is like playing Russian Roulette with a howitzer.
Just ask Mike Castle.
Tim Williamson is a husband, father and writer always searching for new insights into the human condition. He has spent the past 20 years in various sectors of business, chiefly human resources and marketing. His interests include politics, history, religion and literature. He moved to the St George area from Cincinnati, Ohio, in July of 2009, and currently resides in Santa Clara with his wife, Julie, and their sons Jacob, 6, and Mark, 4.