The tea party has successfully ramped up public concern about government spending and accountability, forcing the Republican Party to take more conservative stances on these and other issues. But, according to a recent analysis, the loose-knit group hasn’t translated its populist appeal into electing its favored candidates to the U.S. House and Senate.
This puts Republicans like Maine’s Sen. Olympia Snowe, who is seeking re-election next year, into a difficult position. She must be conservative enough to appeal to her party’s core voters, but not so conservative to turn off Maine’s Democratic and independent voters.
Sen. Snowe, who proudly wore the moderate mantel for years, has tacked hard to the right in recent years. So has the Republican Party.
In 2008, both Sens. Snowe and Susan Collins were at the middle of the political spectrum in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Snowe was the most liberal Republican senator, according to annual rankings by National Journal. Of the votes analyzed by the journal, 49 percent of those tallied were deemed conservative and 51 percent liberal.
Among Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins was right behind her, ranked as the Senate’s 51st most conservative member.
In 2010, Sen. Snowe was ranked the chamber’s 38th most conservative member; Sen. Collins was 39th. They were still in the middle of the Senate’s political spectrum, but they and their party had moved farther to the right. Sixty-three percent of Sen. Snowe’s votes were considered conservative by the National Journal.
Maine, meanwhile, isn’t becoming appreciably more conservative. President Barack Obama received nearly 58 percent of the state’s presidential votes in 2008.
In 2010, Republicans swept the State House and Blaine House, although Republican Paul LePage received 38 percent of the votes in the five-way race. The same year, Democrat Chellie Pingree was re-elected to the U.S. House in Maine’s 1st District with 55 percent of the vote. Democrat Mike Michaud was re-elected with 53 percent of the vote in the 2nd District.
Political scholars have spent a good deal of time analyzing the tea party. Several presented their findings recently at the American Political Science Association’s annual conference in Seattle.
Having the tea party’s blessing appears to have had little impact on individual candidates in U.S. House races, according to a study by Jon Bond of Texas A&M University, Richard Fleisher of Fordham University and Nathan Ilderton of the University of South Florida. In some Senate races, tea party candidates actually cost Republicans some seats.
Instead, they argue that more traditional factors — in this case high unemployment, the Republican tilt of many districts that Democrats were defending, along with candidate experience and performance — were more decisive in the outcome than a tea party stamp of approval.
“The tea party is a significant phenomenon in American politics. … Yet for all its success at energizing the Republican base, the tea party did not create the Republican wave of 2010,” they write. “Instead the tea party and the Republican Party took advantage of the short-term national and district-level conditions working in their favor.”
It is those factors, more than adherence to tea party principles, that will determine if long-time moderates such as Olympia Snowe are re-elected.