Conventional wisdom has it that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's smashing victory over Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin is evidence that, as NBC put it, “tea time is over.” The Tea Party insurgency peaked in 2010 and it's been downhill ever since in large part because so many of its incumbent challengers committed verbal gaffes that exposed their alleged unsuitability for office. But, as is so often the case with the conventional wisdom, there are major problems with that narrative, not the least of which is the regular misapplication of the Tea Party label throughout the 2010 and 2012 campaigns.
Former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin comes to mind if only because he is often cited as proof of Tea Party ineptitude at picking candidates. Sen. Claire McCaskill was among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in 2012. Akin won a three-way GOP primary, but then muttered an infamous line about “legitimate rape.” McCaskill was easily re-elected.
But former state treasurer Sarah Steelman, who was endorsed by Sarah Palin, was the Tea Party favorite, not Akin. As the Washington Examiner reported in a May 14, 2012, Watchdog analysis, Akin represented the old pork barrel politics so despised by the Tea Party. He had obtained $31 million worth of earmarks and received in excess of $80,000 in campaign contributions from the recipients.
McConnell’s victory is portrayed as the Republican establishment’s biggest win yet over the Tea Party. McConnell has indeed been the most outspoken critic of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has recruited and funded multiple challengers in GOP primaries. It is instructive, however, to compare how McConnell campaigned in his previous re-election effort with his strategy in 2014.
As John Hart noted on Real Clear Politics on Wednesday, “the transformation of McConnell's campaign from 2008 to 2014 shows the overwhelming persuasive and redemptive power of the Tea Party. In 2008, the Senate minority leader ran a series of ads touting his success at bringing home the bacon. In 2014, his campaign had lost that aroma. McConnell himself helped end earmarks in 2010 and recently said no to Majority Leader Harry Reid's call to restore the disgraced practice. McConnell's evolving message shows how the real Tea Party can co-opt and win over the GOP establishment when it sticks to its principles.”
Similarly, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling's speech Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation illustrates how the Tea Party's influence has shifted the congressional Republican center of gravity. Hensarling's political mentor was Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas when the latter was among the most powerful Republican Senate insiders. Hensarling's committee has long been an oasis for GOP establishmentarians.
Yet ponder these words from Hensarling’s speech: “With crony capitalism, success is arranged through government-granted favors to those with the best political connections. Crony capitalism slows economic growth and redistributes income. It can breed corruption and undermines the legitimacy of both government and free enterprise.” Clearly, the spirit of the Tea Party is re-animating the Republican heart and soul.