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What did tea partiers accomplish in NY-23?

That’s the topic of my column this week with Ben Boychuk. To recap: “tea party” conservatives in that New York congressional district managed to drive a moderate Republican out of the race — and ended up handing the seat to a Democrat in a district that has long sent the GOP to congress. As I write in the column, we’ve seen this story before:

For a good idea of what tea party activism might accomplish, take a good look at Kansas.

It’s about as Republican a state as they come. It last went for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1964. And the GOP has 300,000 more registered voters than its Democratic rivals. But the state’s governor is a Democrat. So is the attorney general.

How in the heck did that happen? Easy. The Republican Party in Kansas tore itself in two, between center-right “moderates” and conservative true believers. The infighting has been going on for more than a decade, leaving voters alienated and giving Democrats opportunities for electoral wins in a state they have no business contesting.

That looks similar to events in New York. The district there had sent moderate Republicans to Congress forever — its last congressman, John McHugh , crossed party lines to work as President Obama’s Secretary of the Army. But when the GOP establishment picked a similarly centrist Republican to run for office, the tea party folks rebelled and backed a different candidate. Who lost.

The tea party movement started as the biggest expression of sore loserdom in America’s recent political history. George W. Bush had expanded “socialized medicine” — in the form of the new Medicare drug benefit — and turned a budget surplus into a deep deficit. Yet the tea partiers only took to the streets when a Democrat was elected president. It’s not difficult to figure out what motivated them.

So the fact that tea partiers are now holding Republicans to account is refreshing. But parties that insist on ideological purity are usually losers at the ballot box; Democrats began their recent comeback when centrists like Sens. Jim Webb and Bob Casey joined their cause. Tea partiers should heed the lesson if they want to win.

  1. Deregulator Says: Nov 6 1:05 PM

    Joel, don’t stop believing (sorry, couldn’t resist the Fleetwood Mac ref.) that “sore loserdom” meme. Just promise me you won’t be shocked if the House can’t pass a health care bill this weekend or if the GOP retakes the House next year.

  2. Joel Mathis Says: Nov 6 1:14 PM

    Oh, I won’t be shocked at either development. But I’m not sure that either one would be the result of widespread popular support for GOP governance. I suspect that at this point, most voters walk into the booths ready to voter for the lesser evil. And the lesser evil is whoever’s not in charge.

    But that may be simplistic.

    I do stand by the “sore loserdom” meme, though, even though I know it irritates my conservative friends. Just about everything the Tea Partiers are complaining about — deficits, socialized medicine, government intervention in industry and markets — happened first under GWB. And nobody was out in the streets. The tea partiers might be principled, but it took some additional political motivation to get ‘em out in the streets.

  3. Ben Boychuk Says: Nov 6 6:43 PM

    I’m not going to argue this here, or now. (Everyone should click through the link Joel has at the top of the post to get my broad take on the question.) What I am going to point out, however, is Deregulator’s egregious error: “don’t stop believing (sorry, couldn’t resist the Fleetwood Mac ref.)”

    Don’t stop believing is Journey. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow is the mighty Mac. And how can I laugh tomorrow when I can’t even smile today? is Suicidal Tendencies. Thank you and good night.

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