The Tea Party's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Night

Kansas Rep. Todd Tiahrt, along with his wife, Vicki, concedes to Jerry Moran during a watch party for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. Larry W. Smith / AP

Another Tuesday, another round of Republican primaries pitting self-proclaimed Tea Party candidates against their (sometimes slightly, sometimes considerably) more moderate opponents—and yet another sign that the Glenn Beck brigade is a long way from "taking back the country," despite all the hype.

So far, the Tea Party has been the major political story of the 2010 election cycle, and in many ways it's a fascinating, vibrant reflection of America's current fixations and frustrations. But given that the vast majority of the movement's favored candidates have lost their Republican primary battles—and given that the few candidates who've won, like Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, seem to be underperforming against vulnerable Democratic opponents—there's little reason to think that it will be a major electoral force any time soon.

U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and his wife, Abigail, enjoy the balloon drop at his watch party after winning the Republican U.S. Senate primary. Tom Gannam / AP

The "weak tea" trend continued Tuesday in a series of marquee primary battles stretching from the upper to lower Midwest. In Michigan, moderate Rick Snyder—a former Gateway executive who supports embryonic-stem-cell research and sought to attract Democratic crossover voters with ads featuring Bill Ford—was competing against a flock of more conservative candidates (Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, state Attorney General Mike Cox, and Rep. Pete Hoekstra) for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. In Missouri, Rep. Roy Blunt fought for Kit Bond's open U.S. Senate seat against state Sen. Chuck Purgason, an antitax, antigovernment conservative who has worked hard to position himself as a true-blue Tea Partier. And in Kansas, the two orthodox conservative congressmen, Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran, running to replace Sam Brownback, seemed basically indistinguishable until Tiahrt started harping on some of Moran's more moderate votes and secured the endorsement of a lady named Sarah Palin as a result.

Unfortunately for the Tea Party, the so-called mainstream candidates—Moran, Blunt, and Snyder—swept Tuesday night's races. Palin's endorsement couldn't push Tiahrt past Moran; he was trailing by 20 points in the polls when she announced her support earlier this summer, and lost last night by 4. Purgason's strategy of pounding Blunt as the consummate Washington insider didn't pay off; he never raised much money and lost last night by almost 60 points. And Snyder's vow to "reach across the aisle"—a cardinal sin in the Tea Party bible—actually paid off, landing him 11 points ahead of Hoekstra, his next-closest opponent. The news wasn't much better for the Tea Party in a handful of House races. Social moderates, including Kansas's Kevin Yoder, won several high-profile contests over their further-right challengers.

American has a long history of reactionary movements. Click to view the photo gallery. Shane Bevel / AP

Still, there was at least one glimmer of hope for the strongly anti-Obama crowd. A Missouri ballot measure disapproving of the newly inked federal mandate to purchase health insurance passed, with 73 percent of voters shaking their fists at Washington. The only problem? The victory is largely symbolic, a loud protest almost certain to be shot down by the courts.

If anything, last night showed that mainstream Republicans have now devised relatively simple ways of fending off pesky Tea Party challengers. Missouri's Blunt relied on his Washington connections to suck up all the fundraising oxygen and to secure the endorsement of Tea Party icons like Michele Bachmann. Snyder realized that in an open primary against three bickering conservatives, going after disgruntled Dems could provide a decisive boost. And Moran worked to avoid alienating moderates in key battlegrounds like Johnson County by decrying the negative tone of the campaign. All in all, their success is proof that mainstream Republicans are tightening the reins and figuring out how to keep their party from—to borrow a phrase—going rogue.