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.