There’s something about the Tea Party that makes political reporters act like a band of half-blind Labradors chasing squirrels around the yard.
Last week, the national political press barked incessantly about the demise of the Tea Party as a political force after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s easy victory in the Kentucky GOP primary and a handful of other races around the country. In the wake of the Texas runoff victories of conservative standard-bearers Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and a handful of more or less like-minded down-ballot candidates, the pack is lurching the other way, declaring that the Tea Party has the conservative establishment on the run in Texas.
If Tuesday night’s primary victories by Patrick and Paxton suggest that last week’s groupthink declaring the Tea Party tamed suffered from a case of myopia, this week’s lurch toward proclaiming Texas a fiefdom of the Tea Party is equally overwrought. The storyline is tempting: The results here at home paint a counter-narrative of the Tea Party’s renaissance in deep-red Texas. But while some feel that Patrick’s trouncing of incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst by 30 points reflects the open-and-shut case of a Tea Party running Texas politics, there’s far more to the story.
First, Patrick, for all of his foibles in the eyes of his detractors, turned out to be a much stronger and more strategic candidate than people initially gave him credit for. He unapologetically led the way to the far right in the initial stages of the primary campaign, and benefited from the conservative electorate that showed up in both the primary election and the runoff.
Patrick used the long, debate-laden primary campaign to cement his position as the most conservative candidate in the race and to establish a strong attachment with his voters. That the runoff was largely without policy substance only further benefited Patrick. Dewhurst’s efforts to cast doubt on Patrick’s authenticity as a conservative and his reliability – scorched-earth tactics difficult to execute well and long on odds – were unable to shake Patrick’s well-established following among conservative Republican voters. The release of Patrick’s medical records detailing treatment of depression in the 1980s may have ended up doing more harm to Dewhurst than to Patrick.
The Dewhurst campaign’s ham-fisted handling of those records points to another key piece of context in this race: Those surprised by the outcome must have had a major blind spot for the fatal flaws in Dewhurst as a candidate. We’ve written previously about how Dewhurst initially showed signs of recovery after he lost to Ted Cruz in their U.S. Senate race in 2012, even though the damage seemed potentially lasting when compared with Patrick’s upstart success.
The endgame of what is likely to be Dewhurst’s last campaign reinforces the impression that he was ill-equipped to win a hard-fought race without significant scaffolding from someone above him on a ballot (say, oh, Rick Perry). From the poorly handled appropriation of a topless picture of Patrick at a charity event to his murky role in the skullduggery surrounding the release of those medical records, Dewhurst tended to shoot himself in the foot twice for every one shot aimed at Patrick. It wasn’t the Tea Party pulling that trigger.
Speaking of the Tea Party, an assessment of the race should also take into account the actual measurements of the wave that is supposedly swamping Texas politics. University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling has generally shown that roughly half of Republicans identify with the Tea Party, but this identification has remained remarkably stable.
Do Tea Party Republicans make up a larger share of the GOP primary and runoff electorate? Most certainly, but it’s important to remember that this was an off-year election in a state with dismal participation rates, and that Patrick received roughly 488,000 votes in a state with approximately 13.5 million registered voters — about 3.6 percent of the electorate. The total number of voters participating in Tuesday’s runoff was about 200,000 less than those participating in the low-turnout constitutional amendment election last November, in which about 350,000 more Texans voted in favor of drawing on the Rainy Day Fund to fund the state water plan than voted for Patrick. Embracing the Tea Party remains the odds-on strategy for success in a Texas GOP primary, but mainly because turnout remains low, which amplifies the impact of the intense, mobilized faction of voters who show up.
This electoral math derived from the relative stability of Tea Party identification in Texas, combined with Dewhurst’s weakness and Patrick’s well-run campaign, points to a far more tempered reading of Tuesday’s election results. These victories were unambiguous, but their implications are much less clear than simply declaring the Tea Party ascendant in Texas.
The nature of elections is one of over-determination — a number of factors all pointing to the same outcome. The nature of media coverage of elections is one of simple but sexy explanation. In this case, the Tea Party certainly played its part, but to focus solely on the Tea Party ignores basic empirical facts about the presence of the Tea Party in the Texas electorate, and the increasingly inexplicable absence of equally numerous moderate Republicans.