The Tea Party Effect on the Midterm Elections

The votes are in and the Republican Party has taken control of the House of Representatives. The Democrats managed to hold onto the Senate, only losing six seats. The question that will need to be answered in the coming months is how this new government can possibly be expected to function or fix the problems we face today. Divided government is tricky enough when Congress and the president represent two different parties, but when Congress itself is split, the results can be very unpredictable.

Most likely, President Obama will just look worse while he tries to work with an admittedly uncompromising Republican House of Representatives. I hope the people who voted for the Republicans aren’t holding out for some actual progress – what little progress there was in the past two years is not going to be seen for the foreseeable future. Looking forward, the criticism and the partisan games are only going to increase and it will lead to a very bitter and challenging re-election campaign for President Obama in 2012.
Listening to the Republicans, you would think that they had this clear mandate to lead and roll back all of the policy changes made in the past two years. This isn’t the case at all. In 1994, the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress. They took the House by fewer seats than in this election, but they made up for this by grabbing the entire Congress, not half. This time, they only took the House. Many Democrats that lost were “blue dogs,” very conservative Democrats in deeply Republican-friendly districts. The fact that they won their seats in the first place was a result of the Democrats’ “50 state strategy,” where they fought in states and districts that they were not expected to win. To do so, these Democrats had to be effectively Republican in order to win over their constituents. Most of the major progressive caucus members will be returning; most of the blue dogs will not.

Harry Reid, one of the biggest symbols of the Democratic majority, retained his seat and will remain Senate Majority Leader, while many other Democrats held onto their seats. Of the six Senate seats the Republicans won, four were really not much of a surprise. North Dakota and Indiana are Republican-friendly states and their Democratic incumbents both decided not to run for re-election early on, effectively giving those seats away. In Pennsylvania, incumbent Arlen Specter switched parties, becoming a Democrat and then losing his primary. He likely would have lost no matter what but, considering he used to be a Republican, this seat was not much of a change either. In Arkansas, deeply unpopular Blanche Lincoln barely survived a primary challenge and the campaign against her in that race carried over into the general, making her easily the weakest incumbent running this season.

Even Barack Obama’s old Senate seat in Illinois wasn’t much of a surprise. His appointed successor was never going to win and, when he stepped out of the way to allow an open Senate race, neither candidate was particularly favored to win. In what was essentially a coin flip, the Republicans had the advantage given their enthusiastic base. The only shocker was in Wisconsin, where very progressive politician Russ Feingold lost his seat.
The Tea Party apparently had a lot to do with this success and their anti-tax, “cut the deficit” rhetoric is supposedly the reason the Republicans were so successful. To some extent, this is true. But had the Tea Party not been involved in this midterm election, the Republicans would have had a far better night overall. The reason the Republicans failed to take the Senate is due to the Tea Party’s interference. Senate races like the ones in Nevada and Delaware should have easily gone to the Republicans – Harry Reid was very unpopular and Mike Castle was a well-respected member of Congress who led Chris Coons in every poll going into the primaries. The sudden Tea Party insurgence yielded lame and polarizing candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, and they lost badly. Throughout the country, most of the Tea Party candidates lost their races as well. Even in the gubernatorial races in Colorado and New York, the Tea Party candidates gave the Democrats easy wins.

And yet, in the 112th Congress, the divide that will matter the most is the one between the Tea Party candidates that did succeed, like Rand Paul and the establishment Republicans. Just as the Democrats had to contend with blue dogs, the Republicans will have to contend with Tea Party members of Congress while answering to the Tea Party voters and supporters that helped give them an edge. And if it is true that the Tea Party doesn’t care for party identification, I find it hard to believe that Republicans won’t let them down. Between the internal friction in the Republican Party and the external friction between houses of Congress, the next two years will be very ugly indeed and the American people are not going to be anymore satisfied in 2012 than they are right now.

Kerry Wakely is a third-year political science major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.