Just How Did the Tea Party Do On Tuesday?
by Sandi Behrns
Since the rancorous Spring of 2009, the Tea Party has made a lot of noise and has received what many would consider to be more than its fair share of media attention. It is difficult to define, has no national leadership and there is great debate over exactly what constitutes their core beliefs. Many question the staying power of the movement. Will it receive too much blame for costing the Republican Party the Senate? Will the grassroots interest fade away when the economy improves? Will they be a factor in 2012? We can start to answer these questions by looking at how much of a factor the Tea Party was on Tuesday.
Working from the New York Times‘ list of 138 Tea Party identified candidates for the House and Senate, I’ve drawn some conclusions. On election night, my gut instinct was that the Tea Party was doing better in House races than in Senate races. The numbers tell a different story. Of nine candidates for Senate, five won their races, giving the Tea Party Senate candidates a win rate of 55.6%. Of 129 House candidates, 42 won, giving the Tea Party House candidates a win rate of just 32.5%.
The spectacle of Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Ken Buck and Joe Miller’s respective campaigns and losses gave the impression that the Tea Party was not faring well on election night. This is for the same reason that the remaining Tea Party candidates were able to pull off wins. With the possible exception of Rand Paul, the remaining successful Tea Party Senate candidates benefited from the media attention lavished on the kookier specimens such as Angle and O’Donnell.
Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, especially, did not receive anywhere near the scrutiny they deserved for their radically conservative positions. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul were able to avoid enough media exposure and pivot away from Tea Party rhetoric so much that by Election Day, they appeared to be more mainstream GOP than the others. Finally, there was Mike Lee in Utah. He received barely any coverage at all; but it’s Utah, and his win was never in any doubt.
Of the five Senate wins, only two were seats currently held by Democrats, and one of those, Pennsylvania, was due to Sen. Arlen Specter’s party change, not an election. The loss of Sen. Russ Feingold’s seat to businessman Ron Johnson in Wisconsin is the only true shocker here.
Of the 129 Tea Party identified candidates running for House seats, there were 42 winners, although just 36 actually flipped the seat from Blue to Red. Of those 36 flipped seats, 28 were in conservative districts, some very conservative – such as Bill Flores’ win in TX-17 which carries a Cook PVI of R+20. The average PVI for these 28 seats is R+6. So, Tea Party Republicans won in conservative, Republican-leaning districts. Not exactly surprising.
Another eight seats were won in soft Democratic districts, with an average PVI of D+1.75. These swing districts are more important measures of Democratic failure; but we cannot forget the 87 districts which remained in the Democratic column.
We also need to factor in which Democrats lost. First term incumbents accounted for 13 of these losses. Candidates who rode the Obama wave in 2008 were pushed back out this go-round. Another eight incumbents, mostly in the South, had a minimum of seven terms each under their belts. These candidates have been holding these seats for years, while their districts continued to grow more and more conservative.
So we have three type of losses: a) seats that never really belonged to Democrats in the first place; b) seats that long ago moved away from the Democrats, but kept their Reps until now; and c) genuine swing districts whose loss hurts. But to the question of Tea Party influence, it seems to be negligible. Many Tea Party candidates ran in districts which were solid Democrat, and in which no Republican would have been competitive. In conservative districts, Tea Party candidates won, just like non-Tea Party Republicans.
In exit polls, ABC News notes:
In preliminary exit poll results, 41 percent of voters described themselves as supporters of this movement; 21 percent supported it strongly. Thirty-one percent said they opposed the movement; the rest, 24 percent, were “neutral” about it.
Still, just 23 percent said they voted to send a message in favor of the Tea Party movement, versus 18 percent against it; 55 percent called the movement “not a factor” in their vote.
In nine Senate exit polls where voters were asked whether they were trying to send a pro-Tea Party message with their vote, no more than about one in four voters said they were.
Not exactly compelling evidence to support the idea of Tea Party supremacy, nor to justify the amount of media attention the groups receive. In fact:
In Delaware, voters said they were trying to send a message against the Tea Party.
In the end, if this election was influenced by the Tea Party in any way, it was in the media attention directed toward the movement, which fomented an air of conservative inevitability. For the most part, what we saw Tuesday was conservative-leaning swing districts voting for conservatives, and the loss of seats picked up by Democrats in 2008, which were always going to be hard to hold.
Having said that: yes, the Tea Party did cost the GOP the Senate. Sharron Angle’s campaign stripped Republicans of what should have been an easy pickup, considering Harry Reid’s approval ratings in Nevada. In Delaware, the Tea Party’s support for Christine O’Donnell again snatched victory away from the GOP by sending home the one Republican in the state, Rep. Mike Castle, who could have won Vice President Joe Biden’s former seat. Also in Delaware: Mike Castle’s former House seat became one of the few seats in the nation to flip from Red to Blue.
Note: Of these results, there are still three seats, CA-11, IL-8, and WA-2 that are counted as GOP pickups, in which the GOP/Tea Party candidate currently leads with .2% or less. Pending recounts, these results could change.Click here for reuse options!
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