Has the Tea Party Lost Its Mojo?

Representative Allen West (R-Fla.) addresses a meeting of the Independent Insurance Agents of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach, Fla. Photograph by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

In 2010, 60 newly elected Republican lawmakers swept into the House with a mission that embraced uncompromising fiscal conservatism. It was the biggest shift of power in Congress since 1994, when Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives. The Tea Party movement—which had begun in 2008 as a populist reaction to government bailouts—was backed by billionaires such as Charles and David Koch and aimed to remake U.S. politics.

On Tuesday, Tea Party-backed candidates lost to Democrats in Indiana, Missouri, and Wisconsin, among other states.

In Florida, Republican Representative Allen West, a Tea Party hero who made waves for calling Democratic House colleagues closeted Communists, lost to Patrick Murphy, a 29-year-old political newcomer. (West has not conceded the race and is seeking a recount.) In Minnesota, former presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann barely retained her House seat. In Illinois, Democrat Tammy Duckworth, a decorated Iraq War veteran who headed President Barack Obama’s U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, beat Republican incumbent Joe Walsh for a House seat. In a closely-watched U.S. Senate race in Indiana, Democratic Representative Joe Donnelly defeated State Treasurer Richard Mourdock; the Republican had publicly scoffed at the idea of compromise in Washington and his campaign stumbled when he said that conception from rape is “something that God intended.” Missouri Republican Todd Akin also lost a Senate bid over his controversial remarks on “legitimate rape.”

Does this mean that the Tea Party movement has lost its mojo?

Voters have not delivered a wholesale rebuke to the Tea Party movement. Republicans will retain their solid majority in the House of Representatives. Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader and a chieftain of the party’s fiscal-conservative wing, coasted to reelection in Virginia. So far, Republicans have picked up 232 seats in the House. (They currently hold 240, and results in some races are still being tallied.)

“Akin and some of these people—basically, they got into some not-so-smart statements about rape and abortion. Otherwise they would have won, for sure,” says Brigitte Nacos, a political scientist at Columbia University who tracks the Tea Party movement.

Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist who advises House races, says the Republican losses were about “bad candidates,” rather than sending a message about the candidates’ policy positions. “It’s because they ran bad campaigns and got ahead of their voters in their district,” Bonjean says. ”They are more outspoken with their rhetoric and may have gotten crosswise with their constituents.”

Nacos says that if Tea Partiers see a message in the losses, it’s that Mitt Romney was the wrong man to carry the party’s mantle. “They think they lost because Romney is not a true conservative,” she says. “He was not conservative enough.”

If there is one sign that the GOP may reconsider its position on compromise, look no further than House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). In recent weeks, Boehner, who stands for reelection to the speaker post in January, has taken pains to appear steadfast. He downplayed the likelihood of a compromise on the fiscal cliff—the $1.2 trillion in mandatory spending cuts that, if enacted by the end of the year, could spiral the economy back into a recession. Boehner said a deficit-reduction deal would be “difficult.” On Monday, he told Politico that he was not planning to yield on the president’s campaign promise to raise taxes on income above $250,000.

But as the results came in and Obama’s victory was clear, Boehner began offering a slightly different take. He called the House Republican victory a mandate for “common ground.” The morning after the election, Boehner doubled down on the message. In a press release announcing plans for a speech on the fiscal cliff, aides wrote that the Speaker would emphasize “the need for both parties to find common ground.”

Boehner, a deft politician, could be signaling to his cantankerous caucus that it’s time to set a new course. Or he could be trying to secure a feel-good soundbite in post-election news coverage. He could also be covering his bases. If the fight over the fiscal cliff turns out as messy as predicted, at least Boehner can say he tried.

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