Well, the reviews are in. The last of the primaries ended yesterday in what is decidedly a victory for the Tea Party. Now, we wait until November to see if the influence of the far right will translate into actual electoral success.
I have mixed feelings about the entire situation. For one, I think the entire influence of the Tea Party is a touch overblown. Moderates vs. extremists in primaries is hardly a new phenomenon, and has pretty much been going on for decades--at least since the advent of the primary. Now, however, there is an organized movement that pundits can point a finger towards and show that it Means Something Important. About the only novel thing is the number of incumbents that got knocked out, but as far as the difference between this year and others might be one or two Senate seats. (I'm not as familiar with House seats, since there are a bajillion of them and I just don't care enough to look. The House is full of fire-breathing gerrymandered retro-politicians from both sides anyway.)
Now, what will happen in the general election is a different story. If somehow the Republican party ekes out Senate wins in the likes of Delaware and Nevada, I will be genuinely shocked. As the polls stand right now--and assuming that Delaware is a lost cause for the GOP and New Hampshire a tossup due to the close results there--the GOP will pick up six seats. Without the Tea Party candidates, the ten seats to control the Senate was unlikely but wasn't out of the question--Delaware, New Hampshire, and even Nevada were in play. Now, they are most definitely not.
That said, I have absolutely no idea how to read this election. Not that I'm particularly adept at electoral analysis, but I usually have a pretty good grasp of historical trends and how polls work. It's entirely possible that the groundswelling of resentment will push the likes of Nevada and California over to the right--polls over the month of October will help us figure it out. A few points:
1. I can't imagine there will be any large sudden surge of support for the Republicans. I think we're seeing that surge in popularity right now--so the only way for it to go is back down. Whether the GOP can sustain this popularity between now and the beginning of November will determine how the election goes. With all of these loudmouth Tea Party candidates out there, I somehow doubt it.
2. Even the rosy control-the-Senate scenarios before the latest results were mostly wishful thinking. Everything--including California, which hasn't sent a Republican to Washington since before America was founded--would have to flip the right's way. Popular incumbents such as Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and Patty Murray in Washington would have to be vulnerable, which they aren't. The only thing that might work in the Republican's favor are a few unknown factors--for example, right now polls in West Virginia show the Democrat with a solid lead, but this is a red state that refuses to admit it. Deep-blue Connecticut has two wild card candidates. And so on.
3. Regardless of what happens, this election greatly increases the chances that Sarah Palin will become a power in the Republican Party. Unless there is a complete blowout of all Tea Party candidates--unlikely--even getting one or two candidates across the finish line will allow her, in the short run, to spin herself as a kingmaker. Ultimately, in the long run, I think she will become the next Patrick Buchanan--highly influential for an election cycle or two, but when she falters she will be abandoned; she will make several failed bids at the Presidency either with the GOP or a third party for a few tries before settling into a slightly influential job in the media with a core of devoted followers.
4. When did Newt Gingrich become such an asshole? Granted, he was a heartless asshole back in '94, but back then I thought we needed an asshole in charge. I still do, in fact. But while Gingrich was incredibly bad at maintaining his image--which, alas, politicians are more or less are required to do if they want to be leaders--he had creative solutions to problems that politicians had, for years, tried to fix by repeating the exact same thing over and over again. I'm not saying I agreed with everything he's ever done, but I at least respected the fact that he was willing to try something different. I've maintained that respect even through some idiotic comments he's made over the past few years, but the last month or so I think he's just gone off the rails. It's a shame, and perhaps I should have known better. I'm hoping that the next rising star that has that signature mix of innovative solutions and good PR with a dash of risk-taking will not be quite the douchnozzle. (Paul Ryan, anyone?)
5. The existence of the Tea Party itself will always be an enigma to me. On the one hand, I appreciate the enthusiasm manifested in their movement, and my own personal ideological beliefs have benefited from their actions. On the other hand, they seem completely blind to the political realities that not everyone wishes they lived in Utah or Alabama. True political realignments take time, energy, and patience to take effect. (I think we're in that right now; despite the 2006 takeover by the Democrats in Congress and Obama's crushing victory was more a reaction than a true signal of voter preference.) The effect the Tea Party is going to have in our electoral ideological map is going to be largely negligible; it might refine some of the ragged edges, but essentially we're going to be in the same trajectory we have been for about a decade and a half. But this sort of thing also breeds backlashes and over-reaction, which are tactical mistakes that have little long-term effects.