Tea party victories provide hope for Democrats

The latest primary victories for anti-establishment and Tea Party candidates could give the Democrat

The electoral backlash from US conservatives has intensified, as Tea Party candidates once again confounded commentators by defeating mainstream Republican candidates in the latest round of congressional primaries.

Undoubtedly the biggest upset of the night came from the traditionally-Democrat state of Delaware, where Sarah Palin-endorsed Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell defeated long-serving Congressman and former governor Mike Castle to be the Republican candidate for Vice President Joe Biden's former Senate seat.

O'Donnell, who is pro-gun, anti-abortion, fiscally conservative and believes masturbation is a sin, defeated Castle with 53 per cent of the vote. Given that just a week ago O'Donnell was engaged in bitter in-fighting with some of Delaware's elected Republican officials and had been termed "unelectable" by some fellow Republicans, her victory in last night's primary is not only a blow to the GOP, which committed significant resources to the fight in Delaware in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the upset in Alaska, but also adds yet another dimension of unpredictability to the final outcome of November's midterm elections.

The majority of states have now held their primaries. Eight mainstream Republican candidates have been defeated by Tea Party or otherwise right-wing challengers, a number which could rise to nine pending the outcome of the recount in New Hampshire.

The consensus, especially from the left-leaning commentariat, seems to be that while these primary victories for anti-incumbent candidates demonstrate the power and reach of this new right-wing movement, it is very unlikely that any of these challengers will be victorious in the midterms themselves.

In an election season that had otherwise long been considered to be potentially disastrous for the Democrats, with the possibility that the Republicans could regain control of both the House and the Senate, these ultra-conservative candidates represent an opportunity to claw back some momentum in advance of polling day. For instance, Delaware, previously considered to be a serious prospect for the Republicans, is now much more likely to be a hold for the Democrats, especially if their candidate, Chris Coons, is able to capitalise on Christine O'Donnell's unpopularity with a significant faction of Delaware Republicans.

Just as a footnote, it's worth noting that the electoral fortunes of some of these insurgent candidates could have a knock-on effect for Sarah Palin's presidential hopes. Palin notably endorsed Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Carly Fiorina in California, as well as O'Donnell in Delaware. As she is apparently already moving into position for a 2012 campaign, embarrassing defeats for candidates Palin has personally endorsed and campaigned for could dent her appeal to Republicans beyond the confines of the Tea Party movement.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.