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November 19, 2013

Tea party getting a rougher ride from Republican voters

Dr. Barry Kay

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It has become a cliché to say there were no winners in the shutdown of the U.S. in October.

Perhaps so, but even with President Barack Obama's declining support levels in the face of problems with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), Republican poll numbers fell more than did the Democrats, and in a zero-sum game, that effectively helped Obama's side.

The tea party and Senator Ted Cruz are not really a Democratic problem, but rather a Republican problem.

The quest for ideological purity means this movement has a potential ceiling of supporters that is limited to about 25 per cent of the eligible American electorate.

Before one completely dismisses the group as pursuing a futile task, it should be remembered that this 25 per cent is highly motivated and can form a much larger fraction of voters in a low turnout election, if moderates fail to participate.

Party primaries where candidates win the Republican endorsement to run in a general election frequently attract no more than 20 per cent of eligible participants, and it is this fact that accounts for tea party influence in Congress among those in safely gerrymandered districts.

Last week's limited set of off-year elections are a harbinger that the tea party will no longer get a free ride among Republican voters.

The overwhelming re-election victory of Gov. Chris Christie in solidly Democratic New Jersey provides an example of the potential success of a more moderate conservative Republican.

Probably even more pertinent was the defeat of hardline conservative Ken Cuccinelli in the swing state of Virginia, against a very vulnerable Democrat, Terry McAuliffe.

For 40 years, the state has had a history of electing governors from the party opposite to the sitting president.

However, Cuccinelli and Virginia Republicans had a legislative record of extreme social conservative positions on abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and even divorce, that played poorly in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, especially among single women, whom he lost by a 42 per cent margin.

One less publicized electoral contest on Nov. 5 that has perhaps even greater implications was a Republican primary runoff for a congressional district around Mobile, Ala.

An extreme tea party advocate, Dean Young, was narrowly defeated by establishment-endorsed conservative Bradley Byrne, who was heavily financed by business interests such as the chamber of commerce.

This is the first evidence of mainstream Republicans successfully fighting back against the tea party, which has regularly intimidated them with threats of primary challenges.

Tea party insurgents have already launched 2014 challenges against incumbent conservative Republican senators in South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi, in addition to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, underscoring a continuation of the internal Republican strife.

What now seems to be changing is that more moderate Republicans are not content to simply sit back and play defence, but are themselves prepared to challenge the far-right within their party.

As has been often noted, the ability of many Republican legislators to ignore concerns about the general election, and only worry about appealing to that 25 per cent of ideological voters in the party primary, results from the extreme gerrymandering of more than 80 per cent of House of Representatives districts.

This has permitted that body to effectively stymie any legislation on immigration reform, gun control, health care, or anything else of substance, including government funding.

After the government shutdown debacle, it isn't clear how a budget compromise can occur that would avoid a repetition of the event when the current continuing resolution expires in mid-January.

The business community, traditionally a reliable contributor to Republican election campaigns, has become fed up with the economic uncertainty triggered by the strategy of government by crisis.

It goes without saying that moderate voters have long since tired of congressional Republicans' obstructionist tactics.

In the short run, some Republicans might be content to acknowledge Chris Christie as their new 2016 presidential frontrunner, but this confrontation is far from over, and the Republicans are headed for an all-out fight between moderates and the tea party.

Barry Kay is a political-science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and a member of the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (

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