As evidenced by the results last night in the Illinois Republican primaries - the first intraparty contests on the '10 political calendar - it's not yet clear whether the clamorous and diffuse "tea party" movement packs any punch at the ballot box.
Tea-party activists had been vocally touting two particular Republican candidates, both of whom apparently fit the bill as conservative insurgent outsiders: real estate developer Patrick Hughes for the U.S. Senate nomination (he was challenging an insider, moderate GOP congressman Mark Kirk); and wealthy businessman Adam Andrzejewski for the gubernatorial nomination (he was challenging a slew of GOP insiders).
Well, the returns are in. Hughes and Andrzejewski, the tea party-annointed candidates, were both slaughtered.
The hype leading up to primary night suggested otherwise. Mark Kirk was always the favorite for the Senate nomination; he's a well-known commodity in Illinois, thanks to his House tenure, and novice Hughes didn't have much time to get himself known. But tea-partiers insisted that Kirk's moderate record (he voted Yes on the Democratic cap-and-trade bill, he's pro-choice) would prompt lots of other tea-partiers to flood the polling places and cast protest votes for Hughes. Their big talking point was that, in a low-turnout statewide GOP primary (in Illinois, that's about 700,000 votes), the tea-partiers would dominate by dint of their outsize enthusiasm. Hence, their publicized hope was that Hughes would make it close.
It was indeed a low-turnout primary. But Kirk got 57 percent. Hughes got only 19 percent. No way the tea-partiers can spin that one as even a moral victory.
Meanwhile, in the race for the GOP gubernatorial nod, the tea-party movement had much higher hopes for Adam Andrzejewski. His outsider profile was ideal: a businessman who once owned a phone book company; a vocal advocate for government transparency. He had virtually built his first-time candidacy as a tea-party afficionado. He spoke at a rally last April, tailored his platform to meet tea-party tastes, and melded his operation with the movement. As he recently told Politico, "I spoke for 15 minutes at that (April) rally and that gave my campaign early momentum." He tapped movement activists for his email and donor lists.
He pledged, as governor, to oppose 'any and all tax increases." He was endorsed by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Better yet, his chief rivals for the GOP nomination were all insiders (the state Republican chairman, two state senators). And, again, tea-partiers expected to dominate the low turnout. As one Chicago tea-party organizer publicly boasted the other day, "I think we'll get a tea-party candidate elected to the governorship."
It was indeed another low-turnout primary. Problem was, the tea-party movement's darling finished fifth with only 14 percent. The GOP insider candidates left him in the dust.
Perhaps you're thinking: OK, so forget Illinois. What about that Massachusetts Senate special election? Didn't Scott Brown ride into office on a wave of tea-party support? Can't we cite his ascent as the first big tea-party victory?
Not according to Scott Brown. As he remarked on ABC News last Sunday, in response to that argument, "You are making an assumption that the tea party movement was influential, and I have to respectfully disagree."
More GOP primaries are on the calendar. We'll need to wait a bit longer to see whether the grassroots movement has actual electoral oomph (which may well prove true, assuming there is empirical evidence) - or whether, in the end, it's little more than weak tea.
At yesterday's Senate hearing on the proposed repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the top soundbite was obviously uttered by Admiral Mike Mullern, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the most widely-circulated passage, he talked about the absurdity of gay servicepeople being forced "to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."
More fascinating, however, were the remarks uttered by out-of-the-mainstream Republicans. Second prize goes to Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, who worried aloud that if gays served openly, our soldiers would slide down the road to decadence, by engaging in "alcohol use" and "body art." (Yeah, I guess there has never been an instance when a straight soldier on leave got drunk and tattoed.)
But first prize goes to House Republican freshman Duncan Hunter (whose father, the senior Duncan Hunter, was an '08 presidential candidate for roughly 11 minutes). He surfaced last night on NPR. There was one particularly telling exchange.
Question: "Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said today in the Senate hearing that he has talked to counterparts in other countries where they do allow gays to serve openly in the military, and there has been no impact, he says, on military effectiveness. What do you think about that?"
Hunter: "Let me answer with this too. Admiral Mullen is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a political appointee. And that's fine, he has his opinion. But his opinion is not necessarily that of the chief of staff of the Army or the Marine Corp commandant. But I would say, in answer to your particular question, the U.S. is not Canada and we're not Great Britain."
Notw how Hunter never answered the question. No surprise there. If he had, he would've been compelled to acknowledge that none of our allies - 24 nations, including such wimps as the Israelis - have ever indicated that open gay service was a mistake. Britain, our closest ally in two wars, lifted its ban a decade ago, and its Ministry of Defense has since determined that open service has been "a solid achievement" with "no discernible impact" on recruitment or readiness. Rest assured, if any of our open-service allies had ever reported the contrary, Hunter would have quoted it chapter and verse.
I could recount some of Hunter's arguments - particularly his warning that open gay service would prompt an influx of "hermaphrodites" - but you get the idea.