Does The Tea Party Need More Experienced Candidates?

Nathan Hale
This election season’s primary results, in particular Mitch McConnell’s lopsided trouncing yesterday of Matt Bevin, have produced their share of obituaries for the Tea Party. But the experience so far of Tea Party and other insurgent showdowns against the GOP establishment just goes to show that candidates and campaigns still matter – and that’s not likely to change. While both “Establishment” and Tea Party campaigns have gotten savvier in learning how to play the primary game, we are likely for the foreseeable future to see Tea Party challengers win when they are good candidates, with some prior political experience, talent and funding – and lose when they lack one or more of those attributes. I’d like to look here in particular at the importance of political experience, and whether Tea Party campaigns has been losing races because it was running complete political novices.
As my analysis below shows, the answer to that question is not cut and dried – but on the whole, the Tea Party candidates with the staying power to win both a primary and general election have tended not to be people jumping into the political fray for the first time in their lives. As we’ll see, political novices are most likely to win when they are business executives running for governor without an incumbent opponent, and candidates without prior elective experience are best suited to win when they have some family connection or other appointed entree into politics.
Experience isn’t everything; Tea Party challenges have also failed for being underfunded and for having a crowded field that divided the anti-Establishment vote. But these and other aspects of successful campaigns – the ability to raise money, unite factions behind a single candidate, and avoid disabling gaffes – tend also to be byproducts of experience. The lesson is that activists who want to win statewide races behind Tea Party challengers to entrenched incumbents should begin by building a bench of Congressmen, state Attorneys General, state Treasurers, Secretaries of State and Comptrollers, state legislators, Mayors, district attorneys, and other intermediate rungs on the ladder to governorships and Senate seats.
For the analysis below, what I did was go through the list of Republican primary battles in Senate and Governor’s races from 2010 through 2014, and isolate the races that can reasonably be classified as “Establishment” versus “Tea Party” races. Now, this involves a fair amount of generalization, and I show my work so you can draw your own conclusions. The Establishment, broadly speaking, refers to the official party committees (the RNC, NRSC, RGA and the state-level parties) and large organizations (e.g., the Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove’s group), but also to the constellation of donors, officeholders, and pundits that collectively tend to circle the wagons around party leadership and more moderate or less rock-the-boat candidates. Not every “Establishment” organ or figure has taken sides in each of these races, and each can argue for their own won-loss record, but it’s usually not hard to tell who has the implicit or explicit backing of party bigwigs. The “Tea Party” is an even more amorphous collection of insurgent groups across a variety of issues, including the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks, and a host of smaller groups with “Tea Party” in the name (some of which are more legitimate than others, some of which are frankly scams on donors and candidates), social conservative groups, and individual figures like Jim DeMint, Sarah Palin, Mark Levin, and of course Erick Erickson. And again, different figures in this space have made different choices in different races. That said, it’s still possible to see fairly sharp distinctions between the candidates who have “Establishment” backing and those who had to run against a headwind of opposition and rely on Tea Party support. I left off some races like the 2012 Ohio Senate race, where Josh Mandel had a lot of early Tea Party support but had no real Establishment opposition; ditto John Boozman’s 2010 Senate campaign in Arkansas.
I also rated the candidates’ experience on a 4-point scale – which again oversimplifies, but allows us to perform a quantitative comparison. I gave 3 points to incumbents and other candidates who had previously won a prior Senate, Governor or At-Large (i.e., statewide) House race; 2 to candidates who had won prior elections above the local level; 1 to candidates who had some political experience (appointed or local office, or working as a full-time activist or pundit) but nothing on the level of a Congressional or even state legislative race; and 0 to true political newcomers. Those ratings are listed under “TE#” and “EE#” and the difference between the Tea Party and Establishment candidate in a race listed under “Diff”.
Let’s walk through the races, grouped by outcome, and then sum up the findings at the end. Note also that in a few places I’ve listed a “win” that was delivered, not by primary voters, but by a party convention or by one side dropping out of the race.

Tea Party General Election Wins
15 races can be more or less classified as primary and general election Tea Party victories:

Yr St Job Status Establishment Experience EE# Tea Party Experience TE# Other Rs Diff
2010 NM GOV Open D Pete Domenici jr. Lawyer, son of Senator 1 Susanna Martinez 4-term sitting county District Attorney 2 State party chair Allen Weh (Establishment R) -1
2010 TX GOV Incumbent R Kay Bailey Hutchison 7-yr sitting Senator, 13 yrs in public office 3 Rick Perry 10-yr sitting Governor, 19 yrs in statewide office, 25 in public office 3 Debra Medina, Truther 0
2012 NE SEN Open D Jon Bruning 9-yr sitting State AG, 6 yrs state Senator 2 Deb Fischer 8-yr sitting state legislator 2 Don Stenberg (Tea Party R, 1 yr sitting State Treasurer, 12 yrs State AG) 0
2010 WI GOV Open D Mark Neumann 4-yr former Congressman 2 Scott Walker 8-yr sitting County Executive, 10 yrs state assembly 2 0
2010 SC GOV Open R Gresham Barrett 4-term sitting Congressman, former State legislator 2 Nikki Haley 6-yr sitting State Legislator 2 Andre Bauer (Establishment R, 8-yr sitting Lt. Gov), Henry McMaster (Establishment R, 8-yr sitting State AG & former State party chair) 0
2010 ME GOV Open D Peter Mills 14-yr sitting State Senator, lost 2006 GOV primary 2 Paul LePage 8-yr sitting Mayor 2 Les Otten, businessman 0
2010 PA SEN Incumbent R Arlen Specter Incumbent Senator 3 Pat Toomey 3-term Congressman, head of Club for Growth 2 1
2010 FL SEN Open D Charlie Crist Sitting Governor 3 Marco Rubio 10 yrs as state legislator; Majority Leader, Speaker of FL House 2 1
2010 NV GOV Incumbent R Jim Gibbons 1-term sitting Governor, 10 yr former Congressman 3 Brian Sandoval 4-yr sitting federal judge, 1-term former State AG, also state legislator, Gaming Commission 2 1
2012 TX SEN Open R David Dewhurst 10-yr sitting Lt. Governor 2 Ted Cruz State Solicitor General, 6 yrs 1 1
2010 KY SEN Open R Trey Grayson 2-term KY Secretary of State 2 Rand Paul Opthamologist; involved in father’s POTUS campaigns 1 1
2010 WI SEN Incumbent D Dick Leinenkugel State Secretary of Commerce under Democrat governor 1 Ron Johnson Businessman 0 David Westlake (Tea Party R, businessman) 1
2010 UT SEN Incumbent R Bob Bennett Incumbent Senator 3 Mike Lee 1 yr, General Counsel to Governor; Asst US Atty; son of US Solicitor General 1 2
2010 MI GOV Open D Pete Hoekstra 9-term Congressman 2 Rick Snyder Businessman 0 Mike Cox (Conservative AG), Mike Bouchard (Tea Party R, County Sheriff) 2
2010 FL GOV Open R Bill McCollum 20 yrs in House, 2 prior failed Senate runs (lost general, primary) 3 Rick Scott Businessman 0 3

As you can see, this is a heterogenous group. Not all are conservatives – Rand Paul is a libertarian, Martinez a moderate, and Sandoval basically a libertarian (Sandoval ran a populist outsider campaign against a corrupt incumbent; Martinez mostly made her peace with the political establishment of New Mexico after Pete Domenici’s son’s campaign flamed out, although her chief primary opponent had served as chairman of the state party from 2004-09). Not all are political outsiders; Rick Perry had been in office forever, but ended up beating back a primary challenge backed by DC-based moderate and establishment figures by forging an alliance between Austin insiders and Texas Tea Partiers. Not all were even the first choice of national Tea Party groups – Deb Fischer won on the strength of Tea Party-oriented voter support, but the national groups had backed Don Stenberg. Others, like Haley, Rubio, Toomey, Paul and Cruz faced open and fierce opposition from the political establishment both nationally and in their respective states.
Of the six candidates listed here who had never won major office before, two were second-generation national political figures (Paul and Lee), and one (Cruz) had served in a prominent and controversial government office (he was appointed Texas Solicitor General by Greg Abbott). Rick Scott and Rick Snyder were both business executives running for open-seat Governorships, a job voters have been traditionally more willing to entrust to business leaders based on a showing of executive competence. That leaves only Ron Johnson – and after Leinenkugel (whose Establishment credentials were somewhat flimsy anyway) dropped out of the race, Johnson’s only primary opposition was other Tea Party novices. That doesn’t diminish the impressiveness of Johnson’s general election win against an entrenched incumbent blue-state Senator (Russ Feingold) with a national reputation and no major scandal baggage, but it highlights what a rarity his victory was.
Establishment General Election Wins
12 races can be classified as Establishment general election wins after defeating a Tea Party challenge; 11 of those were Establishment primary wins, plus the 2010 Alaska Senate race in which the Establishment candidate (Lisa Murkowski) lost the primary to a Tea Party challenger (Joe Miller) but refused to accept the verdict of the primary voters, ran third-party in the general, and won.

Yr St Job Status Establishment Experience EE# Tea Party Experience TE# Other Rs Diff
2009 NJ GOV Incumbent D Chris Christie Former US Atty (6 yrs), County Freeholder (2 yrs) 1 Steve Lonegan Former 12 yr Mayor 2 -1
2010 KS SEN Open R Pat Moran 7-term sitting Congressman 2 Todd Tiahrt 8-term sitting Congressman 2 0
2010 TN GOV Open D Bill Haslam 8-year sitting Mayor 2 Ron Ramsey Tea Party R, 4-yr sitting Lt Gov & 17-yr state legislator 2 Zach Wamp (Tea Party-leaning 8-term sitting Congressman) 0
2010 GA GOV Open R Nathan Deal 9-term sitting Congressman, former 12-yr State Legislator 2 Karen Handel 4-yr sitting Secretary of State; former Chair of County Bd of Commissioners 2 John Oxendine (Insurance Commissioner), Eric Johnson (State Senator) 0
2010 OK GOV Open D Mary Fallin 2-term sitting Congresswoman, 12 yr former Lt Gov, former State Rep 2 Randy Brogdon 8-yr sitting State Senator 2 0
2010 PA GOV Open D Tom Corbett 6-yr sitting State AG; previously AG & US Atty 2 Sam Rohrer Sitting 18-yr State Rep 2 0
2012 UT SEN Incumbent R Orrin Hatch 6-term sitting Senator 3 Dan Liljenquist 2-yr sitting State Senator 2 1
2010 AZ SEN Incumbent R John McCain 4-term Incumbent Senator, former POTUS nominee 3 JD Hayworth Former 6-term Congressman 2 1
2010 IN SEN Open R Dan Coats Former 10-yr Senator, also Ambassador & Congressman 3 Marlin Stutzman State Senator, 8 yrs in state Sen/House 2 John Hostettler (conservative former 6-term Congressman) 1
2010 NH SEN Open R Kelly Ayotte 5-year recent State AG 2 Ovid Lamontagne 1996 GOV nominee, 3 yrs on State Bd of Ed 1 Bill Binney (moderate businessman) 1
2010 AK SEN Incumbent R Lisa Murkowski Incumbent Senator 3 Joe Miller Part-time state judge and acting US Magistrate Judge, lost 2004 House race 1 2
2010 IA GOV Incumbent D Terry Branstad Former 4-term GOV, also Lt Gov & State Legislator 3 Bob Vander Plaats Social conservative activist, 2006 Lt Gov nominee, 2002 candidate for GOV nomination 1 2

Interestingly, unlike the 2014 primary battles, not one of these races involved a Tea Party candidate new to politics, although Miller, Lamontagne and Vander Plaats had never won any office of note, and Miller’s inexperience was exposed in the general election. And Chris Christie actually beat a more experienced candidate in Steve Lonegan – but then, we know by now that Christie is an exceptionally talented politician. Several of these races simply came down to the better candidate winning, with an assist from some incumbents shifting their voting patterns in the run-up to the primary. J.D. Hayworth might have exploited voter frustration with McCain, but failed to get traction because Hayworth is a clown, and an ethically challenged clown at that. Liljenquist is a promising candidate, but was little-known, and Orrin Hatch was regarded as a conservative hero for the first two decades or so of his tenure in the Senate, a status that (combined with his deep roots in Utah politics) doesn’t wear off overnight; he was never the sort of burr in the saddle that Lugar or Specter had been. Stutzman lost in large part because the Right was divided between him and Hostettler; Haslam won for similar reasons.
Tea Party Primary Wins & General Election Losses
10 races can be classified as Tea Party primary victories that went down to defeat in the fall. These are the most controversial races, since we are frequently told (often without a fair understanding of the facts of the particular races or the flaws of the Establishment candidates) that the Tea Party cost Republicans these races.

Yr St Job Status Establishment Experience EE# Tea Party Experience TE# Other Rs Diff
2013 VA GOV Open R Bill Bolling Sitting Lt Gov (7 yrs), former State Senator (9 yrs) 2 Ken Cuccinelli Sitting State AG (3 yrs), former State Senator (8 yrs) 2 0
2010 NV SEN Incumbent D Sue Lowden 4 yrs as State Senator, majority whip until defeated 1996. Chair of State GOP. 2 Sharron Angle 8 years in state assembly; had run for Congress, lost primary 2 Danny Tarkanian (Tea Party R, lost statewide races for Senate, Sec. of State) 0
2010 CO SEN Incumbent D Jane Norton 4-yr former Lt Gov; former State Rep, worked in HHS & several state agencies 2 Ken Buck 6-yr sitting county D.A.; former AUSA 2 0
2012 IN SEN Incumbent R Richard Lugar 6-term sitting Senator 3 Richard Mourdock 6-yr sitting State Treasurer 2 1
2012 NY SEN Incumbent D Bob Turner 1-term sitting Congressman 2 Wendy Long Activist 1 George Maragos (Businessman, 2 yr sitting County Comptroller) 1
2012 MD SEN Incumbent D Richard Douglas 3 yr former Deputy Asst Secretary of Defense, Senate staffer, businessman 1 Dan Bongino Secret Service agent 0 1
2010 OR GOV Open D Allen Alley Businessman, 2008 nominee for State Treasurer, worked for outgoing D GOV 1 Chris Dudley Businessman, NBA veteran 0 John Lim (18 yr State legislator, 1998 SEN nominee) 1
2010 DE SEN Open D Mike Castle Sitting 9-term Congressman & former 2-term Governor. 3 Christine O’Donnell National TV pundit 1 2
2010 CO GOV Open D Scott McInnis Establishment R, 6-term Congressman 2 Dan Maes Businessman 0 Tom Tancredo (Tea Party R, Former 5-term Congressman, fringe POTUS candidate in 2008) 2
2010 NY GOV Open D Rick Lazio 8 yr former Congressman, 2000 SEN nominee 2 Carl Paladino Businessman 0 2

You will notice right away that less than half of these candidates were experienced politicians, and three of those four – Cuccinelli, Angle, and Buck – all lost very close races in which they won independent voters, in Buck’s case by a double-digit margin. I won’t rehash those races here, as Sean Trende and Dave Weigel recount the relevant history, except to note that (1) we forget how much damage some of the Establishment candidates did to themselves and (2) there was really nothing in Mourdock’s history to suggest the problems that would blow up in his face after a bad debate answer that went national due to the fallout from Todd Akin. Dudley also lost a tight race, featuring possibly the most extreme gender gap on record (he won male voters in Oregon 60-36, but lost female voters 62-36). On the other hand, Long and Bongino were running essentially unwinnable races from the start.
Clearly, O’Donnell, Maes and Paladino were candidates who suffered from a combination of (1) political inexperience and (2) flaws that would have been better-known to the primary electorate if they’d run before.
Establishment Primary Wins & General Election Losses
Set against the 10 Tea Party losses are these 14 races in which an Establishment candidate beat back a Tea Party challenger and went on to lose in the fall. As with the prior group, not all of the losing Tea Party candidates would actually have been viable in the general election, but in either event the interesting question is why they lost when they lost, in this case in the primary.

Yr St Job Status Establishment Experience EE# Tea Party Experience TE# Other Rs Diff
2010 CA GOV Open R Meg Whitman Businesswoman 0 Steve Poizner 4-yr sitting Insurance Commissioner 2 -2
2012 PA SEN Incumbent D Tom Smith Served in local govt as a Democrat 1 Sam Rohrer Former 18-yr State Rep, lost 2010 GOV primary, former state director for AFP 2 Steve Welch (Businessman, Establishment R); David Christian (soldier, businessman, 2-time losing House candidate, TV pundit) -1
2010 CA SEN Incumbent D Carly Fiorina Businesswoman, former McCain campaign spokeswoman 1 Chuck De Vore 6-yr sitting State Assemblyman 2 Tom Campbell (Establishment R, 9 yrs in House, 3 in State Leg) -1
2012 FL SEN Incumbent D Connie Mack IV 4-term sitting Congressman, former State Rep 2 Adam Hasner 8-yr former State Rep, former Majority Leader 2 Dave Weldon (Establishment R, former 7-term Congressman); Mike McCalister (soldier); Mike Haridopolos (Tea Party R, 12 yr sitting State Sen/Rep) 0
2010 IL GOV Incumbent D Bill Brady Sitting State Senator, 18 yrs as State Sen/Rep. Lost 2006 race for GOV nomination. 2 Kirk Dillard 16-yr sitting State Senator 2 Adam Andrzejewski (Tea Party R), Jim Ryan (Establishment R, former State AG), Andy McKenna (Establishment R, former State party chair, ran for 2004 Senate nomination) 0
2012 NM SEN Open R Heather Wilson Former 10-yr Congresswoman, lost 2008 SEN primary 2 Greg Sowards Businessman, lost 2008 Congressional primary 1 1
2012 MI SEN Incumbent D Pete Hoekstra 10-term Congressman 2 Clark Durant 4 yrs as President of State Bd of Ed 1 1
2010 NY SEN Incumbent D Joe DioGuardi Former 2-term Congressman, out of office 12 years 2 David Malpass Economist, economic pundit, advisor to Congressional panels 1 Bruce Blakeman (former county legislator, 1998 state comptroller nominee) 1
2012 ND SEN Open D Rick Berg 1-term sitting At Large Congressman, former State House Majority Leader 3 Duane Sand Activist, soldier, lost 2000 Senate, 2004 & 2008 At Large House races 1 2
2012 WI SEN Open D Tommy Thompson Former 3-term GOV, 4 yrs HHS Secretary 3 Eric Hovde Businessman, former HUD undersecretary 1 Mark Neumann (Establishment R, 4 yr former Congressman) 2
2012 VA SEN Open D George Allen Former 1-term Senator, Governor, Congressman 3 Jamie Radtke Activist 1 2
2012 ME SEN Open R Charlie Summers 2 yrs as Secretary of State, 4 as state legislator, 3 failed House races 2 Andrew Ian Dodge Worked in UK at conservative think tank 0 Bruce Poliquin, Richard Bennett, both modestly experienced in elected office 2
2010 WA SEN Incumbent D Dino Rossi Former State Senator (6 yrs), lost 2004 & 2008 GOV races 2 Clint Didier NFL veteran 0 2
2012 MT SEN Incumbent D Denny Rehberg 6-term sitting At Large Congressman, former 6 yr Lt Gov, lost 1996 Senate race 3 Dennis Teske Farmer 0 3

Rehberg and Berg were two of the biggest general-election failures in recent memory in spite of being experienced candidates, but both had overcome opponents who simply were not experienced enough to mount a credible primary challenge. Jamie Radtke was something of a disaster of a candidate, yet another example of leaving voters without a real alternative to a flawed but veteran Establishment candidate (Allen). Mack had the field cleared for him after both Hasner and Haridopolos dropped out. At the other end of the scale, California primary voters chose the less-experienced candidates in 2010 and got nowhere with them.
Primaries Lost By Both Establishment & Tea Party
A few of the contested primaries of recent years defy even rough classification, because both sides started the primary process by backing a candidate, and both sides lost to a candidate who defied the Establishment/Tea Party divide.

Yr St Job Status Establishment Experience EE# Tea Party Experience TE# Winner Diff
2012 MO SEN Incumbent D John Brunner Businessman 0 Sarah Steelman 4 yr former State Treasurer, 4 yr former State Sen 2 Todd Akin (Six-term Congressman; state legislator for 12 years; social conservative) -2
2010 CT SEN Open D Rob Simmons 6 yr former Congressman, 10 yr former State Rep 2 Peter Schiff Businessman 0 Linda McMahon, businesswoman 2

The Akin race is maybe the most notorious of all, but there was a clear Establishment-backed candidate (Brunner had the support of the powerful Blunt family and its allies), while the Tea Party movement and Sarah Palin backed Steelman; neither side wanted Akin, who was seen as too hardline socially for the Establishment but too establishment-minded economically for the Tea Party. But Akin had something his opponents didn’t: he’d been winning elections since 1989. (He also had the Democrats shrewdly spending money to attack his opponents). He ended up winning a race that was close to a 3-way dead heat. As both Trende and Weigel note, Akin was not a Tea Party creation so much as a result of the two sides dividing the opposition.
Linda McMahon’s two Senate races also defy the categories. In 2010, the NRSC had recruited former Congressman Rob Simmons into the race, while Tea Partiers were backing Schiff; McMahon, a self-funding moderate from the most populist of businesses (pro wrestling), muscled in and beat both. By 2012, McMahon had made more of her peace with the Establishment, and her primary opponent (Chris Shays) had spent two decades as one of the most liberal Republicans in the House, so Connecticut’s Tea Partiers had no real choice.
2014 Tea Party Primary Wins
So far, 2014 has produced only two Tea Party wins in statewide primary races, both in Nebraska.

Yr St Job Status Establishment Experience EE# Tea Party Experience TE# Other Rs Diff
2014 NE SEN Open R Shane Osborn Former 4-yr State Treasurer 2 Ben Sasse University President, 2-yr HHS asst Secretary 1 Sid Dinsdale (Establishment R, businessman) 1
2014 NE GOV Open R Jon Bruning 11-yr sitting State AG, 6 yrs state Senator 2 Pete Ricketts Businessman; lost 2006 SEN race 1 1

Nebraska’s been the one bright spot for the Tea Party this season, and the efforts of the Establishment to downplay its attempts to stop him (many of which had more to do with ire at the Senate Conservatives Fund than Sasse) are a tribute to the bandwagon effect of victory. Sasse is a talented candidate who raised a boatload of money, and his main opponent (Osborn) self-destructed; given the deep-red status of Nebraska, Sasse maybe the unusual outsider candidate to win a Senate race, and even he spent some years in DC working for the Bush Administration.
2014 Establishment Primary Wins
The larger number of Establishment victories this season has fueled the “Tea Party is dead” narrative. Certainly it illustrates the growing sophistication of the Establishment campaigns (especially incumbents) in spotting Tea Party challenges early and working to close them off. It also illustrates the number of races in which a low-quality, poorly-funded Tea Party primary challenge will be mounted against incumbents who in years past would simply have run unopposed.

Yr St Job Status Establishment Experience EE# Tea Party Experience TE# Other Rs Diff
2014 OR SEN Incumbent D Monica Wehby Doctor 0 Jason Conger 4-yr sitting State Rep 2 -2
2014 GA SEN Open R David Perdue Businessman 0 Karen Handel Former 4-yr Secretary of State; former Chair of County Bd of Commissioners; 2010 candidate for GOV nomination 2 Jack Kingston, Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, all veteran Congressmen. Broun is Tea Party, Kingston Establishment -2
2014 IL GOV Incumbent D Bruce Rauner Businessman 0 Kirk Dillard 20-yr sitting State Senator, lost 2010 primary 2 Bill Brady (2010 nominee) -2
2014 CO SEN Incumbent D Cory Gardner 2-term sitting Congressman, former 6 yr State Rep 2 Ken Buck 10-yr sitting county D.A.; former AUSA; lost 2010 SEN race 2 Amy Stephens (Establishment R, State Rep), Owen Hill (Tea Party R, State Senator) 0
2014 TX SEN Incumbent R John Cornyn 2-term sitting Senator, former State AG & State Supreme Court Justice 3 Steve Stockman 1-term sitting Congressman; served 1 prior term, ran several other times 2 1
2014 AR GOV Open D Asa Hutchinson Former 2-term Congressman, former DEA head (2 yrs), lost 2006 GOV race 2 Curtis Coleman Businessman; finished fifth in 2010 primary 1 1
2014 WY SEN Incumbent R Mike Enzi 3-term sitting Senator 3 Liz Cheney Former State Department official, daughter of VP 1 2
2014 NC SEN Incumbent D Thom Tillis 8-yr sitting State Rep, Speaker of State House 2 Greg Brannon Doctor 0 Mark Harris (Tea Party R, minister) 2
2014 KY SEN Incumbent R Mitch McConnell Incumbent Senator; Senate Minority Leader 3 Matt Bevin Businessman 0 3

Hutchinson’s challenger wasn’t a serious threat, and Rauner won in large part because he not only had money but the good fortune to face the same group of candidates who lost the same race to the same opponent in 2010. Liz Cheney, while a fine candidate in the abstract, is really a foreign policy Establishment figure at heart, and was miscast as a Tea Partier. Gardner, of course, will take his nomination by acclimation, as Buck graciously and wisely shifted into a House race to make room, but that Senate race had previously been a dogfight. Wehby is the unusual political neophyte to win as the Establishment-backed candidate, but she had the great advantage of running as a single-issue anti-Obamacare candidate whose opponent, Conger, cast a vote for the disastrous and now defunct Cover Oregon health exchange.
But the Kentucky and North Carolina races were the clearest examples of the Tea Party running political rookies. Bevin, Brannon and Harris all had their virtues, but they got buried in fundraising, Brannon’s mouth and rookie mistake in failing to settle a business dispute, and the inability in North Carolina to unite behind either Brannon or Harris were all fatal.
So, when you add up all the categories of races, what does that tell us? First, let’s look at the overall won-loss record for Tea Party candidates, grouped by their experience level:

Tea Party PW PL PW% GW GL GW%
3 1 0 100% 1 0 100%
2 12 17 41% 8 4 67%
1 7 14 33% 3 2 60%
0 7 6 54% 3 4 43%
TOTAL 27 37 42% 15 10 60%

And here is how Tea Party campaigns matched up when you rank them by the differential in experience:

Tea Party PW PL PW%
TP+3 0 0 N/A
TP+2 0 5 0%
TP+1 1 3 25%
0 8 8 50%
E+1 12 8 60%
E+2 6 9 40%
E+3 1 1 50%
TOTAL 28 34 45%

As you can see, the Tea Party may actually have its best primary winning percentage running complete novices, but by far its best general election showings have come behind more experienced candidates, and the bulk of its wins are in races where the Tea Party candidate was not significantly less experienced than the Establishment candidate. And it has actually floundered when there isn’t a veteran primary opponent who can be the target of anti-incumbent, anti-Washington ire.
Now, let’s apply the same two analyses to Establishment candidates, with the second chart being mostly a mirror image of the first (not quite; for example, I didn’t include the 2014 Georgia Senate race since we don’t yet know whether to credit Perdue or Kingston as the victor):

Establishment PW PL PW% GW GL GW%
3 11 9 55% 5 4 56%
2 16 15 52% 6 7 46%
1 4 4 50% 1 2 33%
0 3 1 75% 0 1 0%
TOTAL 34 29 54% 12 14 46%


Establishment PW PL PW%
E+3 1 1 50%
E+2 8 7 53%
E+1 9 12 43%
0 8 8 50%
TP+1 3 1 75%
TP+2 3 1 75%
TP+3 0 0 N/A
TOTAL 32 30 52%

Unsurprisingly, the general election success of Establishment campaigns has been directly proportionate to the experience of the candidates.
Remaining 2014 Tea Party v Establishment Primary Battles

Yr St Job Status Establishment Experience EE# Tea Party Experience TE# Other Rs Diff
2014 MN SEN Incumbent D Mike McFadden Businessman 0 Julianne Ortman Sitting State Senator (12 yrs), Deputy Majority Leader 2 Jim Abeler (15-yr State Rep, moderate/libertarian) -2
2014 NH SEN Incumbent D Scott Brown Former 1-term MA Senator 3 Bob Smith Former 2-term Senator, 2-term Congressman, ran for 2004 & 2010 Florida SEN nominations & 2000 POTUS candidate 3 Several 0
2014 OK SEN Open R James Lankford 2-term sitting Congressman 2 T.W. Shannon 8-yr sitting State Rep, Speaker of State House 2 0
2014 CO GOV Incumbent D Scott Gessler Sitting 1-term Secretary of State 2 Tom Tancredo Former 5-term Congressman, fringe POTUS candidate in 2008 2 Bob Beauprez (former 2-term Congressman, lost 2006 GOV race), Mike Kopp (former 4-yr State Senator, Minority Leader); both fairly conservative 0
2014 AK SEN Incumbent D Dan Sullivan Sitting Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, former 1-yr State AG, former State Dept official 1 Joe Miller Part-time state judge and acting US Magistrate Judge, lost 2010 Senate race, 2004 House race 1 Mead Treadwell (Establishment R, sitting Lt Gov) 0
2014 NM SEN Incumbent D Allen Weh Former State Party Chair 1 David Clements Assistant D.A., county party chair 1 0
2014 MS SEN Incumbent R Thad Cochran 6-term sitting Senator 3 Chris McDaniel 6-yr sitting State Senator 2 1
2014 TN SEN Incumbent R Lamar Alexander 2-term sitting Senator, former 2-term GOV & Secretary of Education, 1996 POTUS candidate 3 Joe Carr 6-yr sitting State Rep 2 1
2014 SD SEN Open D Mike Rounds Former 2-term GOV, former 10 yr State Senator 3 Larry Rhoden 6-yr sitting State Senator, Majority Whip 2 Stace Nelson (Tea Party R, 4 yr sitting State Rep) 1
2014 WY GOV Incumbent R Matt Mead Sitting 1-term incumbent GOV, former 7 yr US Attorney 3 Cindy Hill 4 yr State Superintendent of Public Instruction (elected) 2 1
2014 LA SEN Incumbent D Bill Cassidy Sitting 3-term Congressman, former State Senator 2 Rob Maness Soldier 0 2
2014 KS SEN Incumbent R Pat Roberts Sitting 3-term Senator, former 8-term Congressman 3 Milton Wolf Doctor 0 3
2014 SC SEN Incumbent R Lindsay Graham 2-term sitting Senator, former 4-term Congressman 3 Det Bowers Minister 0 Lee Bright (6yr sitting State Senator) 3

There are other races as well, although the lines of division are harder as of yet to detail in the Iowa Senate race (where two-term state legislator Joni Ernst, backed by Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin, is trying to unite the two factions against a number of opponents with no electoral experience) and the Arizona Governor’s race (in which most of the crowded field is running to the right). The Rhode Island Governor’s race is a two-man fight, but “Moderate Party” candidate Ken Block has actually been trying to run a more populist campaign than Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. Some of the races listed above are really just token opponents, and others don’t fit that neatly in the Tea Party/Establishment dichotomy.
But in evaluating their odds, it’s unavoidable that Wolf, Maness and Bowers have a tall hill to climb as political newcomers, two of them challenging incumbent Senators; Miller has an even taller one as a general election failure, albeit one who probably would have won in 2010 if Murkowski hadn’t run as an independent. That’s why conservatives are more excited about McDaniel, who’s a more experienced politician, and Shannon.
The most important decision in any election is who runs, and who doesn’t. Tea Partiers may occasionally find a diamond in the rough, but their desire to celebrate the citizen-politician shouldn’t obscure the fact that politics is a craft, and people who have practiced it for some time are more likely to have gotten good at it.

5 thoughts on “Does The Tea Party Need More Experienced Candidates?”

  1. You began this exercise with a flawed premise.
    The Tea Party is the Republican Party. There’s not a lick of difference between them. They just changed their name after the Bush / Cheney Administration turned the Republican brand name toxic.

  2. That’s a lot of work, but I frankly don’t see any particular story here. I don’t know how you can say that the Tea Party does better if it runs experienced candidates when, in the races where it had a more experienced candidate, it had one win and 8 losses.

  3. The GOP can crow all they want, but they better realize that without the Tea Party, there is not a race in the country they can win.

  4. The Tea Party is an idea. Along with Rick Santelli who first articulated the notion, I agree with the premise of responsibility in government. Tens of millions of Americans do too, as was noted in public polling taken at the time rallies were held all over the country.
    Various groups of people have tried to seize the idea and take the name. Other people have smeared the idea and tried to apply the name to anyone they found disagreeable. Neither have any claim on the essence of the Tea Party or the political ideas which provide the motivation underlying those rallies.
    Anyone who treats the “Tea Party” as if it is some kind of formal political party or even a discernible faction within a party is completely missing the significance.

  5. “Along with Rick Santelli who first articulated the notion, I agree with the premise of responsibility in government. ”
    Scratch a Tea Party member, and find someone who has no need to discuss contractor fraud and waste in the Iraq War.
    Making believe the Tea Party is anything other than “Bush’s base” is a waste of time.
    BTW, Rick Santelli’s rant was against the idea of the government helping American home-owners.

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