The Tea Party Is Now Irrelevant in Indiana


Even though most nonpoliticos probably blinked and missed it—and by "blinked" I mean "watched the American Idol contestants butcher the music of Frank Sinatra"—last night just so happened to be the first Super Tuesday of the 2010 election season. The primary battles in North Carolina and Ohio ended rather predictably, with Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher winning the Democratic Senate nod in the Buckeye State and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall topping rival Cal Cunningham in North Carolina's complimentary contest.

But that was OK, because no one was really interested in those races anyway. The marquee show was in Indiana, where a three-way Senate battle between the establishment pick, former GOP senator Dan Coats, and a pair of Tea Party-flavored rivals, former representative John Hoestetler and State Sen. Marlin Stutzman, promised to reveal where the Republican Party was now, and where it was going (or something like that).

So what happened?

A cursory search of Google News for "Indiana results" provides an answer. "Primary Night Hands Win to Party Establishment," writes Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post; "Tea Party Fails to Brew Up a Storm in Republican Primaries," puns The Guardian. Turns out that Coats captured 39 percent of the vote

Pretty cut and dried, right? Not quite, at least according to, you know, other media outlets. As Politico reports, the "Primaries" actually "Bruise[d] Establishment Picks"—a sentiment that The Indianapolis Star heartily confirms, declaring that "GOP Primary Voters Gave ... Coats a Lesson."  What "the results" really "suggest," writes Star's Matthew Tully, is that "Coats has a lot of work ahead of him."

Confused? Those are only the first four search hits. 

My point here is that, for the national (and often, local) press, analyzing these primaries contest often has more to do with establishing or cementing a media narrative than actually saying something about the races in question. In truth, both sets of headlines are correct. Coats was the establishment candidate—he succeeded his former boss Dan Quayle in the Senate way back in 1989 and was recruited by the NRSC this go-round—and he did, in fact, win. But he didn't win all that convincingly; Stutzman and Hostetler combined for 52 percent of the vote, suggesting that if one Tea Partier had dropped out of the race, the other might have come out on top.

Then again, ascribing too much significance to the supposed narrowness of Coats's 9 point victory is kind of beside the point. First of all, 9 points isn't all that narrow. Secondly, second place is first loser. Conservative purity types have shown fairly well in a number of races so far this cycle, but they haven't won many: in Illinois, the moderate Mark Kirk won the GOP nod; in Texas, all 11 of the incumbent House Republicans facing challengers emerged victorious. Despite the dominant media narrative—Republicans beware! Here comes the Tea Party!—the continued failure of the movement to do much more than split its own vote says more about its disorganization than its potency.

The important takeaway from Indiana isn't about the ideological battle for control of the Republican Party. The Tea Party lost that battle, at least locally, and there's no going back. Plus, Coats is hardly a moderate, and I imagine most conservatives will swallow their pride and vote for him in the fall. The point is that the Tea Partiers main knock on the once (and perhaps future) senator—that as someone who has spent the last 12 years living in Virginia and working as a lobbyist for the likes of Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and Chrysler, he's a Washington insider who's out of touch with ordinary Hoosiers—will work just as well in the general election as it did in the primary.

In other words, the whole "trouble for the establishment" theme is a lot less relevant as an epitaph for the nominating contest than as a preview for November, where Coats will be one of the few at-risk Republicans in the country more vulnerable to the incumbent charge than his Democratic rival. The question now is whether Democratic nominee Brad Ellsworth—a former sheriff and current congressman who's trailing Coats by 16 points in the latest polls—can close the gap by painting Coats as the creature of Washington instead of letting the Republican paint that picture of him.

Either way, Coats won't have any vote-splitters to help him out this time around.