National Commentary

Not So Fast, Tea Baggers!


Republicans gloating over their victories in this Tuesday’s elections should temper their elation with a cold, hard assessment of the state of their party that the returns reflect. They’re taking their wins in the statewide elections in Virginia and New Jersey as a signal that, only one year after their devastating losses in the presidential and congressional races, they’re back on their feet.

In fact, it doesn’t take any pro-Democratic spinning to look at the matter quite differently, and more realistically.

With their overall popularity among the U.S. population, as confirmed in a recent poll, now at 23 percent, lower even than George W’s favorable ratings at their nadir, the Republican Party has to be assessed from the standpoint of how it is handling the open split within its ranks that threatens its standing as a mainstream party overall.

The relevant questions for Republicans all focus on this widening split.

It was instructive listening to rightwing radio talk show hosts appearing as bubbly talking heads on all-news TV programming the morning after the election. They all expounded “Full stream ahead!” for their schismatic arch-conservative efforts, despite the fiasco, from a GOP point of view, in the special election in upper New York state.

The moderate Republican in that election was hounded out of the race by a national mobilization of the radical Tea Party faction of the party that included the discredited Sarah Palin.

Rather than proving that the American public is behind them, they proved the opposite. Their right-wing candidate went down in flames, thus turning the 23rd District out of the hands of the GOP and into the hands of their adversaries.

The New Jersey gubernatorial race proves the same point in a different way. Apart from the general liability of incumbency in economic hard times and the scent of scandal associated with incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine, the victorious GOP challenger Chris Christie put himself in a position to win by defeating an arch-conservative in his own party in a primary election earlier in the year.

In other words, the winner is the kind of candidate the Tea Party types are hell bent to dispel from the party.

Virginia is one of those rare states where Tea Party types dominated not only the GOP, but historically more often than not, the state as a whole, except for the far northern area linked to the Washington, D.C. Metro area.

No moderate stands a chance of winning GOP support in a Virginia statewide election as, among others U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Republican congressman from Northern Virginia, discovered when he tested the waters for a statewide U.S. Senate bid a few years back.

What helped Democrats in Virginia win statewide offices in a string of five straight wins since 2000 (two for governor, two for senator and one for president) was a combination of extreme contempt for failed Republicans (Gov. Jim Gilmore in the late 1990s, including his later bid for the U.S. Senate, and George W), major political gaffs (Gov. George Allen’s career-ending “macaca” moment) and occasionally candidates too far to the right even for Virginia.

They were also helped by the abilities of skilled moderate Democrats like Sen. Mark Warner, Sen. Jim Webb and Gov. Tim Kaine to work both sides of the aisle in the promotion of fiscally responsible economic development policies.

But this time, when the national Tea Party effort, led by Freedom Works, the infamous right wing water bearer for the health care giants, descended on Virginia to agitate at town hall meetings in August, they found unusually fertile soil.

Governor-elect Bob McDonnell’s shocking anti-woman views reflected in his papers written while at Pat Robertson’s law school didn’t matter. Meanwhile, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, State Sen. Creigh Deeds could pull out only 32 percent of the voters that went to the polls for Obama only one year earlier.

So, while Virginia’s victory for the Tea Party Republicans will embolden them, it will be to the peril of the GOP’s health nationally.