Douglas Cohn: Primaries will give us a chance to read the tea leaves

By Douglas Cohn

Syndicated columnist

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WASHINGTON — Texas held the first primary of the year on Tuesday, and strategists across the country in both political parties are reading the tea leaves to see what the results portend about the Tea Party and its role in this year’s midterm elections.

At first glance, the solid victories of Republicans, Senator John Cornyn and Rep. Pete Sessions, over their more conservative challengers suggest the Tea Party may have had its day.

But a closer look tells a more complicated story. Republican voters vastly out-numbered Democrats at the polls, 1.3 million versus roughly 550,000 according to a report in The New York Times. In the most hotly contested Republican race for lieutenant governor, the incumbent, David Dewhurst managed only 28 percent of the vote while state senator Dan Patrick, a conservative radio talk show host, pulled 41 percent.

The two men will face each other in a runoff and that will be a good test of Tea Party strength in the state. In the Texas system the lieutenant governor wields more power as president of the state Senate than the governor does from the statehouse in Austin. Among the 50 states, Texas has the weakest governor in terms of executive power, so a win by Patrick would mean a significant shift to the right in the state.

The Tea Party is growing up politically and getting wiser about how to allocate its strength and resources. Local Tea Party groups did not actively work on behalf of Rep. Steve Stockman, a bombastic conservative who was given no chance of upsetting Cornyn. Even Stockman didn’t project confidence in his candidacy, making few public appearances and apparently doing little to rally support.

Stockman lost by a wide margin, and Tea Partiers weren’t shedding any tears. They see opportunity elsewhere if they clothe themselves in less radical robes. National leaders like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and to a lesser extent Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., have gotten the message that fully aligning themselves with the furthermost Tea Party faction is a losing strategy. Paul in particular seems to be searching for ways to move his party to a more competitive position without abandoning conservative principles.

There are a handful of primaries ahead where Tea Party backed candidates reminiscent of past train wrecks may yet emerge. In Georgia, a crowded GOP primary field is jockeying over who’s the purest conservative, and if Georgia Rep Paul Broun prevails over the slightly more moderate Rep. Jack Kingston, the Democrats could pick up the seat. Broun has said that evolution is a lie “from the pit of hell.” The Democrats are fielding a promising middle-of-the-road candidate, Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn.

In North Carolina where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan faces an uphill climb to win re-election, Republicans are fighting among themselves to choose their candidate. Hagan’s chances depend on whether cooler heads prevail, or the party goes with someone the right loves, but who can’t win. Establishment Republicans are weighing in on local races either by backing the candidate they think has the best chance to succeed, or staying out of races that look hopeless. For example, the Club for Growth stayed out of Texas concluding that the conservative challengers weren’t viable contenders worth their expenditures.

Whether or not the Tea Party wins seats outright or not, Tea Party adherents continue to have an outsized impact on Congress and on the Republican Party. However much the establishment fights back, they accomplish little more than holding the line on a seat here and there.

The overall impact of the Tea Party is the scare it can still put into the hearts of even the most conservative Republicans. And the impact of that is to push the GOP further to the right in each cycle as a matter of short-term preservation. Long term, the GOP is doomed if it cannot find its way back to the center, but try telling that to someone who’s focused on his or her re-election.

 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.