The Tea Party's Missed Opportunity in Utah

What do you get when one Tea Party candidate faces off against another in the most conservative state in the country? A missed opportunity.

Attorney Mike Lee narrowly defeated businessman Tim Bridgewater last night in Utah's GOP Senate primary. After the ultraconservative Republican delegation ousted Sen. Bob Bennett last month, these two identically right-wing, nonincumbent, Tea Party-backed candidates were forced into a runoff. Without any of the usual indicators to distinguish them--neither could be cast as an "establishment" Republican, and both received endorsements from Tea Party entities--the campaign dynamic shifted. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week:

"Because Messrs. Lee and Bridgewater are kindred spirits, the Utah race hasn't been defined by issues, but by personalities and resumes. The big question: Who is better equipped to be a senator?"

At least, that should have been the question. Presidential election narratives regularly weave in questions of leadership style and decision making. (Remember Joe Biden's famous prediction that Obama would be "tested" by a national crisis early in his presidency?) But congressional candidates are rarely subjected to the same scrutiny. The rationale seems to be that since legislators don't have to command a military or respond to natural disasters, all we really need to know about them is their ideology and voting records. But if we've learned anything from this broken Congress, it's that style and personality make a difference.

The Republican Senate primary in Utah was fertile ground for Tea Party activists to explore the tenability of their legislative goals and how an elected official could feasibly accomplish them.

For example, both candidates supported repealing the health-care-reform bill, so the issue became moot on the campaign trail. But Tea Partiers should have demanded that the candidates explain how they would repeal the legislation. Would they form coalitions with powerful Republicans? Would they make deals with Democrats? Would they hold Congress hostage until a vote was taken? Their preferred approach would have revealed volumes about their legislative styles, and the election's result would have exposed the Tea Party's expectations.

Unfortunately, the campaign never reached such productive levels of high-minded debate. Instead, the candidates swapped attacks on each others' professional careers: Bridgewater was accused of working for a company that took bailout money, while Lee was dismissed for being just another lawyer with his eye on Washington.

In the end, the Tea Party got another candidate nominated last night, and they'll probably count that as a win. But they failed to seize on a valuable opportunity to interrogate their own platform and candidates. Maybe they're not so different from the two-party power brokers they rail against, after all.