The Tea Party is a liability for the Republicans

This war for the GOP’s soul could do more harm than good – particularly if the wrong side wins.

Jon Stainbrook doesn't try to keep the excitement out of his voice. "In 2006, in 2008, if you had an R by your name, you were gonna lose," he says. "Now if there's an R by your name you win." In next week's midterm elections, he says, the Republicans are "gonna win and gonna win big. It'll be the biggest victory we've had in years."

All this, understandably, has Stainbrook rather excited. He's chair of the Republican Party in Lucas County, Ohio, one of the most solidly Democratic areas in the Midwest. But Ohio as a whole is a depressed, post-industrial wasteland that tends to be a bellwether come election time: as goes Ohio, so goes America. And this year, the state looks set to pick a Republican governor, a Republican senator and a swath of Republic congressman.

"I never thought that people would turn on Obama this quickly," says Stainbrook, with undisguised glee.

Yet if there's a downside for the Republicans, it is contained within the very movement that has done so much to energise its voter base this year. The Tea Party has been festooned with media coverage and had a number of notable victories in helping right-wing Republicans beat more moderate candidates in the party's primaries last summer. More importantly, for the first time in half a decade, it has got the party's conservative base excited about being conservative again.

But while the Tea Party may have helped the Republicans out this year, there are reasons to think it could be a liability in future elections.

Stream of anger

Problem number one is that the Tea Partiers are, not to put too fine a point on it, nuts. Horror stories about the movement's preferred candidates abound. Christine O'Donnell, the conservative running for the Delaware Senate seat, won unflattering headlines when she flatly denied that the US constitution had anything to say about the separation of church and state.

The activists are no better. Gloria Johnson, chair of the Democratic Party in Knox County, Tennessee, says her local Tea Partiers "couldn't organise their way out of a paper bag". Those turning up to a meeting in her district found that the parking garage was closed. "They couldn't face the idea of on-street parking. So they cancelled the meeting."

This is not the stuff that revolutions are made of.

A bigger problem with the Tea Party, though, is that, by picking hard-right candidates, it may be making the Republican Party less attractive to mainstream voters. Many Tea Partiers think they represent a stream of anger that runs through the entire US population. Actually, polls have found that – surprise, surprise – they are far more conservative than most of their countrymen.

This means that the Tea Party's preferred candidates may be less palatable to the electorate than the moderates they've pushed out. (In what is shaping up to be a great year for the Republicans, O'Donnell looks all but certain to lose her race.)

John Martin, a moderate conservative activist who in 2008 led the "Republicans for Obama" campaign, says unequivocally that the Tea Party will be bad for his party. "A lot of people who are running as independents today were Republicans three years ago," he points out.

Other polls have found that the Tea Party is doing more to fire up horrified Democrats than it is to build Republican support.

Grow, grow, grow your own

There is one more problem with the Tea Partiers: and that is, they don't think much of the Republican Party, either. Many see the party establishment as a bunch of just the kind of elitist career politicians they've set out to destroy. Democratic activists are full of glee that their party looks much more unified in presumed defeat than the Republicans are looking in victory.

This war for the party's soul could do more harm than good – particularly if the wrong side wins. A big Republican victory this year could lead to overconfidence, making it harder for the party to move back to the centre ground where presidential elections are won. And it could make the Republicans more likely to pick someone unelectably right-wing to run against Barack Obama in 2012.

Some activists, you sense, are aware of this problem. Stainbrook is oddly contradictory in his attitude towards the Tea Party.

He is effusive, describing it as "a wonderful, beautiful thing". "I love it," he says. "Why would we not want to nurture and grow something that's ours?" But he cheerfully admits that the Tea Partiers aren't going to stop their attacks on moderate Republicans for the sake of party unity.

And in the same breath with which he heaps praise on the movement, he concedes that it might dent his party's electoral prospects. "There is always the danger," Stainbrook says, "that if in the primary you pick an ultra-conservative then you've got a candidate that's not as palatable to the general public.

"But that's the thing," he adds quickly. "They don't want a moderate any more."

Perhaps the party doesn't. But it might just turn out that the voters do.

Jonn Elledge is a London-based journalist. In autumn 2008 he wrote the New Statesman's US election blog.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.