Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Poorly armed and somewhat dangerous: Tea Party candidates in the 2010 Michigan primary

(Cross-posted at WMR, ML, BFM, and SSP-pb)

Since early 2009, the Tea Party movement has gained an enormous amount of media attention. While claiming to be a non-partisan movement, the Tea Party is remarkably consistent with some of the core constituencies at the heart of Republican Party since the late 1960s. In particular, the themes commonly evoked by Tea Party participants (economic libertarianism, fervent individualism, and deep distrust of any governmental intervention) largely mirror the platform of Republican Representative Ron Paul’s 2008 candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination. Indeed, many organizers of Paul’s campaign and leaders in the Young American for Freedom (YAF) were behind many of the early Tea Party events in 2009.

The rise of the Tea Party movement represents in part a return of many conservative libertarians to the GOP. The candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964 did much to bring libertarians into the Republican Party, were they largely remained for following four decades. During his second term, George W. Bush was responsible for driving some libertarians out, as many became extremely disenchanted with the Republican Party’s focus on social issues and increased governmental expansion. While not abandoning the Republican Party entirely, a sizable percentage of libertarians voted from Democratic candidates in 2006 and 2008 for reasons similar to those voiced in blogger Markos Moulitsas’s 2006 Cato Unbound [http://www.cato-unbound.org/2006/10/02/markos-moulitsas/the-case-for-the-libertarian-democrat/ article].

Thus, the Tea Party movement should be viewed as a campaign bus returning disenchanted Republicans to an active role in the GOP. As numerous polls show, members of the movement are overwhelming conservative, white, older, well off, and evangelical Protestant in religious identity. The overriding narrative should not be that the Tea Party is a bunch of angry independents ready to forge an independent political movement, but rather that libertarians will be an active participant in the ideological battles within in the Republican Party following the November 2010 elections that will likely last until the end of the 2012 GOP Presidential primary.

Of course, American politics are decided at the ballot box, not at Ron Paul forums. The 2010 Michigan State House and State Senate primaries offer a good perspective on whether the Tea Party movement will be able to translate its message resurgent libertarianism into political success.

I identified the candidates running in the Republican or Democratic primary for the State House (508 total) and the State Senate (164 total), and used the endorsements from the Republican Liberty Caucus (RLC) and the Independence Caucus (IC) to determined if candidates could be considered authentic supporters of the Tea Party Movement. The RLC has long been a libertarian action group within the Republican Party. Founded in 1991, the RLC’s website states that it strongly supports “individual rights, limited government and free enterprise,” hallmarks of conservative libertarianism. The IC was created in 2008 by supporters of Jason Chaffetz, a libertarian Republican who defeated long-time Republican Congressman Chris Cannon in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District. The IC’s website also supports libertarian principles, including “limited government, fiscal responsibility, and constitutional authority.” I used the endorsements from the RLC and IC to determine a candidate’s adherence to the Tea Party movement since many candidates, while stating vague solidarity, at heart want to run away from being associated with the conservative libertarian principles of the movement.

As shown in the [https://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=0AtAGGuZPwuifdFZCYmxhaEx1ZTlmN2tBdFd6ekc3OHc&hl=en&authkey=CKSat4EG linked Google document], both the RLC and IC endorsed a number of candidates in the 2010 primary. 25 State House and 12 State Senate candidates were endorsed by either the RLC or the IC, and four (two in the State House and two in the State Senate) were endorsed by both groups. All candidates were Republicans, and two were GOP incumbents in the State House (David Agema-74th and Bob Genetski-88th).

The Tea Party candidates had a lousy record in state house primary races. Of the 25 candidates in State House primaries, five did not face a primary challenge (including Agema and Genteski). However, only Agema and Genteski are likely to head to Lansing after November 2010, as the three challengers are in districts that are either safely Democratic (Bret Allen-29th and Chase Ingersoll-53rd) or have a strong Democratic incumbent (Steven Mobley-62nd). The remaining 20 candidates faced competitive primaries, resulting in only two Tea Party candidates winning the Republican nomination. One winner (Cynthia Kallgren-13th) is a sure loser this November, leaving Lori Levi (District 21) as the only non-incumbent Tea Party candidate who has a legitimate shot at winning.

Why did the remaining 18 Tea Party candidates lose their primaries? One (Dave Ryan-103rd) signed a financial waiver, dooming himself to sure defeat with promising not to raise more than $1,000 for the entire election cycle. While nearly all of the candidates provided personal loans to support their campaigns, many Tea Party candidates were simply unable to raise the money to compete successfully in the primary. Only 10 candidates raised more than $10,000 during the pre-primary filing period, and only five were able to raise more than $10,000 without personal loans to carry them over to the top. Thus, a large number of Tea Party candidates simply starved for a lack of funding.

Three races in Kent County are instructive to the struggle that Tea Party candidates faced in the 2010 primary season. Two of the races (Eric Larson-72nd and Jordan Bush-75th) featured aggressive first-time candidates who ran against more moderate Republicans who raised more traditional GOP themes. While Larson had an overwhelming financial advantage he lost to Ken Yonker by a narrow margin, a defeat that some say was caused by his over-reliance on direct mail and Yonker’s out-hustling him door-to-door. Bush faced a more uphill struggle against Goei, who had a financial advantage and establishment support, and while connecting well in his Alger Heights neighborhood and portions of the 2nd Ward, did not connect with voters in the Calvin Ghetto (east of Plymouth Street, south of Hall Street). In the 86th District, Walker Mayor Rob Ver Heulen lost to Lisa Lyons, daughter of former GOP State Senator Dick Posthumus, in a classic west/east side battle that once again, the more populated east side one. Lyons’ membership in the Posthumus political dynasty did not hurt, nor did the fact that candidates John Schwartz and Kimberly Cummings help divide up the Republican vote outside of Lyons’ political base in Ada Township and Lowell.

In the State Senate, a somewhat more mixed picture appears. The RLC and IC parted ways and endorsed opposing candidates in the 7th and 30th State Senate districts, with the IC supported candidate winning in the 7th (Patrick Colbeck) and the RLC candidate victorious in the 30th (Arlan Meekhof). Meekhof will win easily in November, while Colbeck will likely be in the crosshairs in an extremely competitive swing district. While 7th District Democratic candidate Kathleen Law is flawed in so many ways, the presence of former Republican John Stewart as an independent candidate could steal a large number of moderate Republican votes from Colbeck. This will be a race to watch in November. Kyle Haubrich was unopposed in the 23rd District GOP primary, and will be defeated handily in November by Democratic Senator Gretchen Whitmer.

Of the remaining seven Tea Party candidates with primaries, only David Hildenbrand (District 29) won. Hildenbrand is a sitting State Representative with strong conservative backing from his Lowell-based district, and will face strong general election opponent in former Grand Rapids City Commissioner David LaGrand. The remaining six faced challenges similar to those faced by their state house counterparts: low fundraising numbers and opposition from the GOP establishment.

Will the Tea Party movement have a future in Michigan politics past November 2010? I suspect that there will be no more than two Tea Party-endorsed members in both the Michigan State Senate and State House. However, the ideological battle within the Michigan Republican Party will continue unabated in the coming two years, particularly if GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder is elected. Of all the GOP candidates, Snyder is the one that raised the more ire among Tea Party supporters in Michigan, who seem him as the second coming of William Milliken. It will be fascinating to see how Snyder campaigns as a moderate while keeping the Tea Party movement within the GOP. Regardless, I am sure John Yob will play a role.