Last week, primary elections in several states killed off a few ultraconservative candidates whose views flirted with nuttiness. In Georgia, for example, U.S. Rep. Paul Broun — a physician who has called evolution and the big-bang theory “lies straight from the pit of hell” — drew only 9.8 percent of the vote in a crowded race to become the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.
In the same Georgia primary contest, U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, an obstetrician-gynecologist, pulled down just 10 percent of the vote. Last year, the gaffe-prone Gingrey drew national ridicule for defending former Missouri congressman Todd Akin, who had said that natural processes protect a woman from pregnancy after rape.
Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell easily dispatched a Republican challenger, Matt Bevin, who had suggested that legalizing gay marriage could lead to parents marrying their children.
Those results, among others, cheered the Republican establishment, which has grown tired of fielding weird candidates who cannot win general elections, and led to a round of obituaries for the Tea Party movement, which had backed several of the losers. According to the chattering classes, the election results prove that the Tea Party is on life support, a dying force in conservative politics. That goes double for the doyenne of the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin, whose chosen candidate in the Georgia Senate primary, Karen Handel, also lost.
But that view is just wrong. Tea Partiers have already accomplished what they set out to do: move the Republican Party much further to the right. While the foot-in-mouth, reality-challenged candidates may have been swept from the stage, the Tea Party has grafted its DNA onto the GOP. The Republican Party is now a small tent of hard-right absolutists who deny science, worship the rich and detest compromise.
Ronald Reagan wouldn’t recognize his party — and wouldn’t be welcome there either, as former Florida governor Jeb Bush noted two years ago. “Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad — they would have a hard time if you define the Republican Party — and I don’t — as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground,” he said.
Georgia’s Republican primary for an open U.S. Senate seat (as Senator Saxby Chambliss retires) was instructive. It was a frenzy of Obama-bashing, an unedifying contest among candidates who repeated far-right orthodoxy like a mantra. They pledged to fight Obamacare, to resist tax increases, to cut spending on social programs, to defend every citizen’s right to own a shoulder-fired rocket launcher. Each of them pledged to fight abortion, though they all want to cut the programs that help keep poor babies healthy.
When the leading candidate, millionaire businessman David Perdue, said something rational, it was denounced as a gaffe and used as fodder by his opponents. Asked by a Macon Telegraph editorial writer whether he would chose spending cuts or increased revenue to improve the economy, Perdue said “both.” His opponents jumped on the remark quickly, claiming he had given notice that he would raise taxes.
The peculiar aversion to compromise runs counter to the example set by Reagan, the patron saint of the modern conservative movement. He famously bartered with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill to arrive at a 1983 agreement to cut spending and raise taxes, which firmed up Social Security for a generation.
Yet, the Tea Party takeover of the GOP is holding strong, producing an adherence to far-right dogma. That’s what voters are likely to see in the runoff for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat, in which frontrunner Perdue will face U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston on July 22. Both candidates will feel pressure to prove themselves to the Tea Party supporters who voted for Gingrey, Broun and Handel, so they’ll engage in even more ultraconservative rhetoric and indulge even more right-wing impulses.
The Republican establishment thought that it was going to use the energy of far-right activists to win elections while remaining firmly in control. If any members of the GOP establishment — including old-line institutions such as the Chamber of Commerce — still believe that’s what happened, they are only fooling themselves.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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