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I Propose a Test

October 18, 2013

In the aftermath of the Tea Party-inspired, Ted Cruz-driven government shut-down and near default, the commentariat is hyperventilating about the effect the fiasco will have on Republican incumbents. Every two-handed pundit in the business has pointed out that, on the one hand, public approval of the Republican Party is at all-time lows, but on the other hand, Republican members of the House of Representatives mostly come from deep red districts where holding the federal government hostage is considered to be a heroic act of patriotism.

The thing is, House districts can be gerrymandered, but Senate districts, otherwise known as “states,” cannot. So I propose that a better test of the electoral impact of the Tea Party insanity is not the 2014 House elections but the 2014 Senate elections. It’s also a simpler test – there are a lot fewer Senate seats than House seats, and, states being constants where House districts are variables, Senate primaries and elections are much easier to compare over time.

Thirty-four Senate seats are up for election in 2014, including a special election in South Carolina, where Tim Scott will be running for election to the remainder of Jim DeMint’s term. Fourteen of the 34 are held by Republicans. Of those 14, two are retiring (Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Johanns of Nebraska) and one has not declared (Thad Cochran of Mississippi).

That leaves 11 incumbent Senators running for re-election. Of those, six voted against and four voted for re-opening the government and suspending the federal debt limit. (One senator, Jim Inhofe, didn’t vote. Both of the retiring senators, as well as the undeclared Senator Cochran, also voted in favor – which might not be a coincidence.)

The four accommodationists are Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.  All four of them can be characterized as members of the Republican Establishment, but only two – Collins and Alexander – can plausibly be characterized as moderates.

McConnell, who is running for a sixth term, was already facing a Tea Party primary before the shut-down. McConnell has polled well ahead of his Tea Party rival so far, but four of his five elections to the Senate have been relatively close – in 2008, for example, he beat Democrat Bruce Lunsford, a business man who had never held elective office, by just six percent of the vote. In 2014, if McConnell gets past the primary, he will be facing Kentucky’s secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who won election to that position in 2011 by an impressive 21 percent margin.

So McConnell’s vote to re-open the government probably indicates that McConnell is less concerned about his Tea Party primary opponent than his general election opponent.

Collins is running for a fourth term in moderate Maine. Collins has no declared primary opponents, and she won re-election in 2008 by 23 percent of the vote.

Graham is running for a third term. Graham has been expecting a Tea Party challenge, but no primary candidate has yet declared. Graham won the state by 16 percent in 2008, although hypothetical primary polling for 2014 should cause Graham some concern – for instance, Congressman Joe “You Lie” Wilson ran two points ahead of Graham in a 2011 survey.

Alexander is also running for a third term. The Tea Party vowed a primary well before the government shut-down, and its candidate is Joe Carr, a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Carr is making a prime issue of Alexander’s vote to re-open the federal government – right up at the top of his campaign’s home page, Carr tells Alexander “You sold-out Tennesseans” and “gave into the demands of President Obama.” An August poll showed Alexander beating Carr by almost three to one, but another poll casting Alexander against a hypothetical “someone more conservative” put Alexander five points behind the hypothetical.

There’s a long way to go, but at this point I think it’s unlikely that any of the four accommodationists will lose to a primary to a Tea Party candidate. If I’m right, in other words, the Tea Party shut-down not only failed completely in its effort to end Obamacare, it also failed to gain ground in its insurgency against the Republican Establishment.

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