If the 2010-2012 campaigns were about Republicans appeasing their Tea Party primary challengers, 2014 is shaping up to be the year when establishment Republicans decided they're no longer going to play nice. The business community and many in the GOP's old guard are fed up with debates about "purity" and downright furious about the shutdown strategy. Instead of conceding the primary process to their intra-party rivals, they are preparing to engage them. However, just putting money and a "common sense" message forward isn't going to be enough. If the "establishment" is going to re-establish itself, they have to understand who these primary voters are.
Back in 2010 and 2012, Sens. John McCain and Orrin Hatch were held up by GOP strategists as success stories. Not only did they take their primary challengers seriously (unlike many other incumbents), but they also co-opted the message and in many cases the actual members of the Tea Party groups in their state. Hatch was also successful in demonizing Freedom Works, the group most active in trying to beat him at the state party convention. Undermine the messenger and you've undermined the message. Overall, however, the lesson for incumbent Republicans with a primary challengers: you can't beat 'em if you don't join 'em.
In the wake of the government shutdown, however, the mood of many in the GOP has shifted. Forget about appeasing this group, they say, we've got to flush them out of our party. They have damaged our brand, put Wall Street on edge and done irrevocable harm to the economy.
GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander, whose bi-partisan work on immigration reform and the government shut down has earned him a primary challenge, recently told folks back home in Tennessee that "[i]f all we do is stand around handing each other score cards, we won’t get anything done. That’s why, in the current health-care debate, I’m not in the shut-down-the-government crowd. I’m in the take-charge-of-the-government crowd, and get something done.”
The Chamber of Commerce's senior political strategist Scott Reed told Bloomberg News that "[t]he need is now more than ever to elect people who understand the free market and not silliness.”
The Chamber has jumped into an intra-party contest in the special election in the heavily Republican AL-01 supporting former state senator Bradley Byrne over real estate developer Dean Young. Byrne touted his endorsement in a recent debate, arguing that he has a proven track record of "problem solving'" while his opponent is a "problem maker" who would add to the dysfunction in Washington.
But, while those along the Acela corridor and in the political chattering class decry the gridlock and dysfunction in Congress, it's not at all clear that primary voters feel similarly. Moreover, a group like the Chamber of Commerce is not the best messenger for "breaking up gridlock." After all, many put the blame for DC dysfunction on the shoulders of well-connected lobbyists who are more interested in helping big businesses than worrying about the little guy. In the AL-01 race, for example, Young pushed back on Byrne's Chamber endorsement arguing that he's "been bankrolled by the special interests. That's who we're fighting."
The Washington Post's Jim Tankersly wrote a fantastic piece on the economic make-up of the districts held by many of the most strident voices of the Tea Party.
What he found was that people in those districts tended to be poorer and have a higher rate of unemployment than the country as a whole. "The median income in those districts last year was 7 percent lower than the national median, according to the Census Bureau. The unemployment rate averaged 10 percent. That was almost two percentage points higher than the national rate, and two percentage points higher than the overall rate in the states that contain each district."
In other words, these are not the people are worried about the stock market or the GDP growth in the 4th quarter. They haven't seen an economy recovery. They are worried about making it through the month, or the rest of the year with enough food on the table for their families.
While those of us inside-the-Beltway bemoan the rabble-rousers who are undermining the established order, folks in these struggling communities want to see the established order shaken up. After all, why should they believe that those with a vested interest in helping Wall Street or Washington succeed are at all interested in helping them get ahead? They don't see anyone fighting for them. And, they are angry about it.
This chart from Gallup should remind every politician just how pessimistic most Americans are about their ability to get ahead.
From 1952-1998, more than 80 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that "there's plenty of opportunity" to get ahead economically in this country "and anyone who works hard can go as far as they want." Today, just 52 percent of Americans agree with that statement, while forty-three percent concur that "the average person doesn't have much chance to really get ahead."
For those who are frustrated with the hold the Tea Party has in the primary, calling them kooky or uneducated about the free market isn't going to win over voters. To win, you have to meet the voters where they are, not where you think they should be. And, right now, voters remain angry and anxious about the state of the economy. The Tea Party candidates get this. Those who want to defeat those candidates have to prove to voters that they get it too.