GOP establishment more of a liability than the Tea Party ever was

North Carolina Republican Renee Elmers thought she had beat Democrat incumbent Bob “the Hug” Etheridge, but with the threat of a recount looming, Elmers turned to the National Republican Campaign Committee for help with legal fees. The NRCC, strangely, refused, providing a stark contrast to the NRCC’s claim over Tuesday night’s victory. It also undermines the narrative parroted by the press from Sen. Lindsey Graham’s, R-S.C., claim that the Tea Party movement somehow bungled the 2010 Republican victory.

Instead, we have a much different narrative: The GOP establishment, Graham included, has been more of a liability because of its refusal to help candidates.

Elmers writes on her blog:

Yesterday, we appealed to the National Republican Congressional Committee for support, asking if they could contribute to help pay the costs of this recount. Their answer, unfortunately, was, No – that we would have to raise the money to pay for the recount ourselves.

I was afraid that would be their answer. Months ago, I went to Washington and asked the National Republican Congressional Committee and many conservative leaders to help my campaign. Many conservative groups – like the Susan B. Anthony List, Concerned Women of America, Freedom Works, and Sarah Palin’s Sarah PAC all helped, but the NRCC declined. Later, they did support other campaigns in North Carolina – which, unfortunately, lost – but we never received their support. In fact, their spokesman told the press “that the campaign wasn’t ready for prime time” – which actually made it even harder for us to raise money. So, I am doubtful we will get support from the NRCC to help with the expense of the recount.

It’s one thing to decline support; it’s quite another to sandbag. There could be a perfectly sound explanation for this, but it’s hard to muster a sympathetic ear.

That’s because this isn’t uncharted territory for the NRCC, which intervened in last year’s momentous New York primary on behalf of union-friendly Dede Scozzafava. As Robert Stacy McCain writes it, “The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee had pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the 23rd District in support of Scozzafava — to no avail, since the candidate’s message never resonated with voters.” When she closed down her campaign, she went on to endorse the Democrat.

Then there’s the NRCC’s sibling, the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Sen.-elect Marco Rubio, for instance, was the original underdog in the Florida Senate race — the National Republican Senatorial Committee refused to endorse him, in fact, endorsing his opponent, outgoing Governor Charlie Crist who was so scandal-plagued that the Florida GOP auctioned an improperly commissioned portrait of him on eBay.

While the NRSC’s Brian Walsh, bless his heart, argues that they didn’t spend a dime on Crist, that endorsement was in place for a year. It sure did help with fundraising. From the Sun Sentinel:

More than one-fourth — 580 — of the 2,100 contributors who helped Crist raise a whopping $4.3 million have now maxed out for both the 2010 primary and general elections, meaning they can’t be asked to give again.

And the vast majority of Crist’s donors gave checks larger than $1,000 — many giving the full $2,400 allowed for the primary election — meaning the governor won’t have as many names to turn to in his fund-raising Rolodex over the next 16 months.

This comes from the very first quarter in which Crist got the endorsement. The Sentinel shows goes on to show how this was problematic for Rubio:

By comparison, Crist’s long-shot GOP primary opponent, Marco Rubio, reported 2,500 contributors during the three-month period ending June 30, with only about 100 of them giving the limit. Rubio totaled only $340,000, and this week started trimming his paid staff.

The NRSC didn’t pull its endorsement of Crist until the following year.

Then there’s Kentucky’s Sen.-elect Rand Paul who was able to win election to the Senate, no thanks to the NRSC’s early support for his opponent, handpicked by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:

Back in August [2009], 23 GOP senators, including [NRSC chairman] Cornyn and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, held a D.C. fundraiser for Grayson’s bid to succeed outgoing Sen. Jim Bunning. Eight months later and just three weeks before the primary, physician Rand Paul holds a 15-percentage-point advantage over Grayson, according to the latest SurveyUSA automated poll.

No wonder McConnell didn’t spend much time talking about the Tea Parties in his speech at the Heritage Foundation on Thursday. Nor did he do much to refute the assertion that the Tea Parties hurt Republicans’ chances at taking the Senate:

… You can go back and second-guess whether you could have had a better candidate here or there, but the primaries decided those outcomes and … we’re… pretty… happy with that outcome.

The NRSC’s only function is to win elections. I get that. But NRSC chairman Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was forced to eventually pledge not to intervene in a contested primary in which there is no incumbent. Anger about this tin-eared approach was precisely what led grassroots activists to root for Christine O’Donnell reflexively, regardless of her electability.

The message coming from Tea Party activists wasn’t “All or nothing,” the message was, “Quit it!” (Kicking out a much-disliked liberal moderate like incumbent Mike Castle didn’t hurt, either.) Senate Republicans don’t like knowing that they don’t get a pass just for being a Republican. Unlike the 1994 revolution, there is now an organized grassroots base with an eye peeled. Antagonizing the base (which is different than simply abandoning it) will have more impact than ever before.

The NRSC came under fire for providing legal assistance to Alaska’s incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who would lose her primary to Joe Miller (whom they refused legal assistance). As I wrote then, the NRSC’s responsibility was to the incumbent who had done work for the organization — but people were outraged still by the whiff of the establishment once again swooping in. Thankfully, the seat wouldn’t be lost to a Democrat, but these wounds remain open.

Who knows? The absence of establishment organs of the GOP may have contributed to some candidates’  success, granting them authenticity and independence. But I don’t see any mastermind attempting to take credit for that strategy.

While the definition of Tea Party candidate has become overly broad, it is synonymous with “anti-establishment,” or rather, “someone who likely had to put up with these kinds of shenanigans.” Exit polls show that people seem to dislike the Republican Party more than they oppose the Tea Party movement by more than 20 points, so there's at least a distinction in voters' minds.

Sen. Graham is welcome to continue to bash the Tea Party movement as unsustainable, saying that it will “die out,” and that these candidates won’t do very well.

When he does so, however, he’ll just have to keep his voice down, lest his new senatorial Tea Party colleagues hear him.

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