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The Tea Party Isn’t Dead Yet

The Tea Party Isn’t Dead Yet

As they surveyed the wreckage of the 2012 elections, Republican Party elders agreed: The Tea Party must die.

At the time, killing it didn’t seem like such a hard task. The Tea Party was already reeling after the clown show of the 2012 presidential primaries, and after a couple of hand-picked Tea Party candidates revealed an inability to stop talking about rape, the GOP found themselves still in the minority in the Senate. The Tea Party caucus in the House folded up shop, and pundits across the political spectrum declared the movement so 2010, something confined to a historical blip, like that JetBlue flight attendant who popped the rubber slide open to flee obnoxious passengers, or like the original Grown Ups movie.

But a funny thing has happened as the next election cycle approaches. The farthest-right reaches of the Republican Party have come roaring back. And they make the Todd Akins and Michele Bachmanns of the world seem reasonable by comparison.

Consider Texas, where Attorney General Greg Abbott is running for governor. Abbott once described his daily routine as going into the office, suing Barack Obama, and then calling it a day. He has sued the federal government 27 times in all, including one time he sought to have the Americans With Disabilities Act declared unconstitutional. At his campaign-kickoff announcement, his staff distributed signs that said “Fast cars, firearms, and freedom—Endorsed by Greg Abbott.”

Or consider the case of Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee in Virginia. His predecessor shocked liberals when he supported a bill that would require women who seek abortions to undergo a vaginal probe; Cuccinelli has backed anti-adultery and anti-sodomy laws. And while he is running neck-and-neck against Democrat Terry MacAuliffe, party elders in Old Dominion are wondering what would have happened if the far more palatable lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, had been the pick. In Minnesota, Bachmann is set to retire from her seat in Congress. The frontrunner to replace her is Tom Emmer, a Bachmann’s Bachmann, proposing in 2010 that the Minnesota Constitution be amended so that the state could nullify federal laws it did not approve of. He opposes anti-bullying legislation, and wants to eliminate the minimum wage.

At the beginning of the year, Republican bigwigs decided that they would need to do something to prevent the furthest fringes from hijacking the primary process, so they could avoid more Christine O’Donnells, Joe Millers, and Todd Akins. Oh, well: In the last two weeks alone Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, longtime Wyoming senator Mike Enzi, and South Carolina senior senator Lindsey Graham all received announced primary challenges. And in at least a half-dozen other cases, GOP leaders are worried that an outside-the-mainstream candidate for either an open or incumbent’s seat will torpedo the party’s chances. Even many of the same figures have returned, the establishment’s scorn the last time around fueling the fire—Christine O’Donnell, Joe Miller, and Nevada’s Sharron Angle are all making noises about getting back into the fray.

“There has been a change in terms of the party makeup. There used to be an acceptance of all ends of ideological beliefs having a common bond and moving forward,” said Mike Castle, a former governor and at-large congressman from Delaware who saw his all but certain bid for the U.S. Senate upended by O’Donnell. A Democrat now holds the seat. “There is a serious rift, which is a problem. And in my judgment it is not diminishing at this point.”

Tea Party–based political operatives are fanning out across the country in anticipation of 2014. Sal Russo, co-founder of the Tea Party Express, said that his group had already traveled to 10 states and interviewed 41 candidates for U.S. Senate offices. If the GOP does not control the Senate, it is not his fault, he said.

“We supported a number of establishment candidates, but the establishment candidates got taken to the cleaners. They lost almost every race,” he said. “They throw Richard Mourdock and Christine O’Donnell at us, but, well you have lost more than we have.”

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