WASHINGTON—Even if most of the “tea party” candidates lose in the Nov. 2 midterm election, their legacy of “no” is likely to linger among Republicans into the upcoming 112th Congress and beyond.
Observers say what unfolded in the Delaware Republican primary Tuesday—and elsewhere in previous primaries—doesn’t bode well for the future of energy and environmental legislation that will require strategic synergy and nimble footwork between GOP and Democratic senators and representatives.
“The tea party message Republican incumbents are going to get is that any sign of moderation can and will be used against you in the next primary,” Isaac Wood, a political analyst for the nonpartisan University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told SolveClimate News in a Wednesday interview. “That could have a chilling effect on bipartisan cooperation.”
Wood covers House races for the political handicapping Web site known as “Sabato’s Crystal Ball.” Professor Larry J. Sabato is the center’s director.
Even Republicans inclined to engage on climate and energy bills might be leery of doing so, Wood said, because that might make it politically impossible for them to survive their next primary.
“I think Republicans are going to say, ‘If this can happen to Mike Castle this can happen to any of us. He was hugely popular and still he was brought down,’” he added.
Though Rep. Castle’s loss to tea party candidate Christine O’Donnell Tuesday was somewhat surprising, the groundwork had evidently been laid in Utah, Kentucky, Nevada, Colorado and Alaska, where tea partiers shocked political prognosticators by emerging victorious in Senate primary races.
O’Donnell, a former television political analyst endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, attacked Castle for being one of eight Republican House members to vote for a cap-and-trade bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act in 2009. He’s the first of what environmental organizations labeled the “enlightened eight” to suffer a defeat this election season.
Castle, a nine-term representative and former Delaware governor, is often referred to as the consummate moderate Republican, now a rare and dwindling breed. Tuesday, however, he became a victim of an apparent fracturing and polarization within the Republican Party.
With O’Donnell winning, political prognosticators say the opening widens for Democrat Chris Coons to fill the seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden. A victory by Coons would block a Republican bid to gain the 10 seats the GOP needs in the Senate to gain a chamber majority.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., in his capacity as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, got his digs in at O’Connell Tuesday night when he said that she “joins the ranks of Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, Ken Buck, and Ron Johnson—all of whom care more about imposing a strict social doctrine than creating jobs.
Even the Delaware Republican Party chairman has said O’Donnell is "not a viable candidate for any office in the state of Delaware," and “could not be elected dog catcher.’”
Whether enough tea party candidates will be elected in November and form a significant voting bloc that can sway climate or energy legislation is the $64,000 question, said Jon Hoganson, a former House staffer who is now a principal with the Washington lobbying firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc.
“Right now, the Republicans feel they have to cater to this group,” Hoganson said in an interview, “because they see the tea party as one of their key constituencies. They’re taking the good with the bad because the tea party has forced candidates that aren’t ready to be elected into races and that forces the Republican Party to spend money where it might not want to.”
Tea partiers will fuel a move to the right in the Republican Party, Hoganson speculated, which will narrow the chances for advancing climate legislation. He noted that they have already made it clear they won’t back “big government”—any legislation they interpret as being too costly or requiring more regulations.
Peering into his crystal ball, Wood said he envisions two post-election scenarios. One involves what might be categorized as the rational high road. The other seems to go in the opposite direction.
“I see two potential outcomes after the November election,” Wood said. “Republican primary voters could realize the importance of nominating electable candidates or the incumbents will realize that being electable isn’t enough and that they need ideological purity … they have to be true believers and fire breathers to win.”
“And I think the latter is much more likely.”