The Great Myth: The GOP Establishment vs. The Tea Party by Gregory Hilton

Tuesday’s night victory of social conservative Christine O’Donnell over moderate Rep. Mike Castle in the Delaware Republican Senate primary is being portrayed as a great setback for the Republican establishment. The enthusiasm behind the O’Donnell crusade can not be denied, but her electability remains questionable. On Wednesday morning, O’Donnell was trailing liberal Democrat Chris Coons in cash on hand by $20,000 to $940,000. That was the beginning of an explosion of Internet support, and O’Donnell now has almost $2 million and is ahead of Coons in cash on hand.

Her fundraising boom was fueled by radio host Rush Limbaugh who said:

“This is about conservatives taking back the Republican Party.” He denounced “the petulant attitude of’party insiders” and said “Who the hell are they, anyway, to anoint or disanoint somebody as electable or not electable? I’m in charge of that! … That’s always been my purview and nothing’s changed.”

On the “O’Reilly Factor,” Charles Krauthamer responded to Limbaugh:

What’s at stake here is control of the Senate. The paramount objective of any Republican and conservative today is to gain control of the House and Senate, and that’s why winning seats is important. It’s a huge mistake to jeopardize a seat in Delaware which was absolutely in the pocket without almost any contention and to jeopardize it with a much weaker candidate, who may or may not win, and I think is overwhelmingly likely to lose.

Delaware is not the only state where Tea Party victories are being portrayed as a triumph of conservatives over liberal Republicans, but the claims are not accurate. Tea Party candidates did defeat Senators Bob Bennett (R-UT) and Kay Bailey Hutchison. Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) referred to his opponent as “Kay Bailout Hutchison.”

Tea Party candidates also defeated Congressmen Gresham Barrett (R-SC) and Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) who were both gubernatorial candidates, as well as Senate candidates Jane Norton (R-CO), Sue Lowden (R-NV) and Trey Grayson (R-KY). They are all solid conservatives. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was defeated in a primary two weeks ago, and is best described as a moderate conservative. She has a 70% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union.

The Tea Party failed to defeat a number of fellow conservatives in statewide races. Among those who survived Tea Party challenges are Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Dan Coats (R-IN), Terry Branstad (R-IA), Mary Fallin (R-OK), Dino Rossi (R-WA), Carly Fiorina (R-CA), Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Bob Ehrlich (R-MD). Many of the Tea Party challenges were ironic because on the issues there was no difference between the Republican Party and what the Tea Party is advocating. Dana Milbank addressed this in today’s Washington Post:

Who in the supposed Republican establishment has opposed the Tea Party? . . those peddling this account have largely created a straw man. The Republican establishment of popular imagination no longer exists. If there is a Republican establishment, the Tea Party is it. The vast majority of GOP lawmakers already display the conservative purity that the Tea Partyers have been demanding. Fully 86 percent of Republicans in the House and Senate were dubbed “ACU Conservatives” by the American Conservative Union, for voting the conservative line at least 80 percent of the time in 2009.

If there is a difference between the Tea Party and the GOP it might be on foreign policy and TARP. GOP Senate candidates Rand Paul (R-KY), Sharron Angle (R-NV) and Mike Lee (R-UT) have all advocated U.S. withdrawal from the UN and have expressed reservations about the U.S. roles in Afghanistan and Iraq. Similar reservations were expressed by Tea Party candidates who were defeated in GOP primaries. This group includes John Hostettler (R-IN) and Clint Didier (R-WA), while Chuck DeVore (R-CA) wants to dramatically scale down the U.S. role in Afghanistan. To find differences between the GOP and the Tea Party, the campaigns in Utah and South Carolina should be examined.


Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT) was defeated for renomination at the state Republican convention. The Senator would have been renominated for another term if he could have entered a primary. A Mason Dixon Poll conducted for the Salt Lake Tribune indicated Bennett was by far the most popular GOP candidate in the race, and was beating his Republican challengers by a 2 to 1 margin. Thirty-nine percent said they would vote for Bennett, compared to 20 percent for Mike Lee, who is now the GOP nominee.
Bennett has been in the Senate since 1992 and is best known as an advocate of the flat tax, free trade, and the Patriot Act. He has always been a strong opponent of public health care and has blamed government policies for the high cost of insurance. His cumulative lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 84%.
His senior colleague, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), has an 89% ACU lifetime rating. Two-thirds of delegates to the GOP state convention also said they would have voted to defeat Senator Hatch. They felt Hatch was not conservative enough and was willing to compromise. The GOP website Red State focused on Bennett’s vote in favor or TARP and said he “can and must be beaten. . . if the GOP is ever going to reclaim any credibility with the public they must stand for something other than creeping socialism. Bob Bennett must be defeated.” The winner, Mike Lee, advocates U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations and his position on Afghanistan was disturbing to many Republicans. Lee said:

I’m concerned with reports that I am hearing from Afghanistan in particular that we may have 100 or fewer active militant Taliban in Afghanistan. . . If that is true, I ask the question: what on earth are we doing subjecting our brave men and women who need to be supported to that kind of danger, day in and day out, if they have as many thugs there as we have right here in Utah county?

Senator Bennett immediately reacted to the statement by blasting Lee in a TV ad: “Mike Lee wants to cut and run in Afghanistan as soon as we can,” and he “demeans our soldiers service as nothing more than ‘Meals on Wheels.’” According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, there are an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Taliban fighters. According to Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty, Lee “Advocates a non-interventionist foreign policy and says our military should be used for defensive purposes only. He considers the Patriot Act one of the worst pieces of legislation enacted during the Bush years. He despises the Federal Reserve.”


In the South Carolina Governor’s race, State Rep. Nikki Haley was endorsed by Sarah Palin and was portrayed as the Tea Party candidate. She defeated Congressman Gresham Barrett in the GOP primary, but he was not a liberal Republican. Barrett has a 98% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. The only difference was that Barrett voted for George Bush’s TARP. Senators Bennett, Hutchison and Murkowski, as well as Representatives Fallin and Blunt, voted the same way.

Many Tea Party members continue to confuse Obama’s $863 billion stimulus with Bush’s Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). Over 90% of the funds distributed by Bush’s $350 million in TARP expenditures have been paid back, while stimulus spending is not designed to be paid back. The first time TARP came up for a vote in October of 2008, a number of Republicans did not support it. Then they saw the stock market immediately collapse by an unprecedented 1000 points, and they were told the entire American banking system was in danger of shutting down, and the result would be another great depression. Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) says supporting TARP “was the correct and courageous thing to do,” and the legislation was also endorsed by the conservative magazine National Review.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney endorsed Rep. Barrett by focusing on TARP:

There’s a lot of revisionist history going on in South Carolina these days. I expect that from MSNBC, but not from fellow Republicans. So let me set the record straight. I’m certain Gresham knew his vote in support of President Bush and our plan wouldn’t be popular, but he did something far too novel in American politics today: He put the interests of his country ahead of his own. That’s why voters should not believe the false attacks from his opponents. When it was time to make decisions and show leadership, Gresham stepped up while they all stayed silent and ducked for cover. That may make for good politics today, but it certainly isn’t leadership.

Congressman Barrett has had to devote a huge amount of time to defending the TARP vote, and it was always used as a principle attack weapon by his opponents. One of his opponents referred to him as “Bailout Barrett.” The Congressman devoted an entire 60 second TV ad to TARP in which he said:

I honestly believe with all my heart that we were at a point where men and women were going to reach into their back pocket and pull out a credit card or ATM card and stick it into a machine and nothing was going to come out. I listened to my president, George W. Bush. I listened to businessman and leaders in South Carolina. As a leader, I made a decision. Did we stop something that could have happened? Yeah, I believe we did. Has it been implemented like it should have been? No, absolutely not. You can always be a Monday morning quarterback. But leaders make decisions based on the best information that they have, and they go with it. That’s what I did.

One response to “The Great Myth: The GOP Establishment vs. The Tea Party by Gregory Hilton

  1. Pingback: The Next Target is the Republican Party: Diane Olson of the Tea Party Debates Former RNC Staffer Gregory Hilton | The DC World Affairs Blog

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