TIME 2014 Election

The Tea Party is Running Out of Steam

Florida Americans For Prosperity Rally
AP Photo/Phil Sears Participants hold up signs during an Americans For Prosperity "Tallahassee Days Rally" March 3, 2014 at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.

The movement is struggling as primary races slip away

The Tea Party is wanting for scalps this year.

In past two cycles, the insurgent group claimed the Senate seats of Republicans Bob Bennett of Utah and Dick Lugar of Indiana. But this year, Texas Sen. John Cornyn sailed through his Tea Party primary challenge and it’s not looking likely that the movement will take down any of its top targets: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

There’s still a crew of Tea Party challengers in open-seat races, but the “Tea Party groups aren’t as united as they once were,” says Jennifer Duffy, who tracks the Senate for Cook Political Report, which follows congressional races. “They haven’t united behind candidates in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, for example.”

It’s looking increasing likely that Republican incumbents or establishment candidates will prevail this year. Could this be the beginning of the end of the Tea Party?

Not quite.

The Tea Party had a change in strategy this cycle after establishment Republicans blamed activists for Senate losses in 2010 and 2012 that cost the GOP the majority. This year, Tea Party leaders have looked to red states for their main targets in primaries—states where it’s harder for the insurgents to win because the incumbents are inherently more conservative than those in swing states. Plus, “the national Republicans have been more aggressive in pushing back,” Duffy says. And, “as polling has been indicating, the Tea Party just isn’t as popular as it was.”

Compounding that, the issues have gotten away from the movement. Budgets and deficits are no longer as prominent in the headlines. “There are Tea Party challenges, but they have less traction and momentum,” says Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. “One reason is the way the debt limit-shutdown issues played out. It’s not easy to undermine ‘establishment’ candidates who were on the “wrong” side.”

Not to mention, Ornstein says, that Obamacare has become “the great unifier.” As Democratic pollster Celinda Lake noted earlier this week, with every GOP candidate standing in opposition to the health care reform law, the biggest issue of the midterm elections so far this year, the establishment candidates are winning. There’s little right ground left for Tea Party candidates to go.

Of course, election filing deadlines haven’t past in half the states and Tea Party challengers are often late filers, so much could still change. But, Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, argues that the Tea Party is simply growing up. “There are fewer serious Tea Party threats to Senate and House incumbents. …The learning curve is not flat, even for ideologues,” he says. “They were convinced they’d win the White House in 2012. They expected to sweep key Senate seats too. We know what happened. Some compromise, or maybe tolerance, has crept into parts of the Tea Party movement. They want to win as much as they want their principles embraced.”

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