On its front page on Monday, The New York Times offers a portrait of Tea Partiers ousted from Congress who've decided to toe a more moderate line in 2014 as they try to get their old seats back. We'd be wise to be skeptical that moderation is the new Tea Party playbook.
Bob Dold, one-time/one-term Tea Party congressman from Illinois, has learned his lesson, it seems. No longer is he issuing "incendiary remarks about President Obama and the national debt," according to the Times. Instead, he's looking at 2014 as a chance to explain to voters "why you want moderates like me," narrowly focusing on Obamacare as a problem to be fixed.
First-term members ousted in each election cycle
The odds are pretty good that Dold hasn't changed much. It's certainly the case that the dynamics around the president and Obamacare have changed since November of last year, necessitating a shift by the Republican opposition. But Dold's up-and-down political career and messaging is much more a function of when he ran and when he was ousted. The chart at right shows the number of first-term members of the House ousted during each election cycle. In 1994 and 2010 — off-year elections favorable to Republicans — the right saw a wave of new members sweep into office. Dold was part of that 2010 wave. In 1996 and 2012, the wave swept back, tossing a number of first-time Republicans.
Dold went out with the tide. The district he used to serve, Illinois' 10th, is marked as a "toss-up" by Cook Political Reports — suggesting that its demographic makeup (and other factors) put it into play for either party. In other words, it's a district that a hard-right Republican probably wouldn't have won in a non-wave election anyway. 2014 will be a better cycle for Republicans, but it almost certainly won't be a wave. So Dold's a moderate.
You only need to look at the positioning of Republicans in safer districts to undermine the idea of a more demure Tea Party — which, to be fair, the Times suggests might be the case in only some races. Last week, House Speaker John Boehner railed against the far-right of his party, somewhat belatedly taking it to task for disrupting the GOP at large. It's not clear whether Boehner wants to run as speaker again in 2015, but it's very clear that Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin wants to run for higher office in 2016. So Ryan, speaking to Meet the Press on Sunday, somewhat dismissed Boehner's anger. Far right groups are "very important elements" of the Republican Party, said a man who almost certainly wants to ensure he gets some of their votes in a few years. (Ryan certainly doesn't want conservatives undermining his strong position in Iowa, for example.)
Or consider the Senate, where the upstart Senate Conservatives Fund has backed a number of hard-right challenges to sitting members. One such candidate, Milton Wolf, is running against Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas. Wolf hasn't been shy in criticizing Roberts' conservatism, attacking Roberts, as Politico reports, for his vote to confirm Kathleen Sebelius to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. "You cannot say you oppose Obamacare when you crowned the queen of Obamacare," Wolf said of Roberts — prompting Roberts to shortly thereafter call for Sebelius to resign.
For other Republican senators, the situation is the same; even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces a robust challenge from the right. How nervous is he? According to The Wall Street Journal, McConnell made an unusual pitch to defense contractors: put your money where your mouth is. The Tea Partiers, his argument apparently went, are looking to slash military spending. McConnell is nervous enough about the prospect that he's encouraging donors to get involved early.
In other words, Bob Dold — a Republican who won office in an unusual election for Republicans — is an exception. The Tea Party insurrection, which has prompted new and urgent pushback from the Republican establishment, shows little sign of evaporating before 2014. The "firebrands," as the Times headline dubs them, are still pretty heated.