There was considerable drama in Tuesday’s primary elections: The White House clashed with organized labor in Arkansas; Nevada Republicans battled to face Harry Reid; and charges of marital infidelity roiled South Carolina’s gubernatorial contest.
But the most telling result of the night may have been in Mount Laurel, N.J.
There, 36-year-old Jon Runyan, a former linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles, won the Republican nomination for New Jersey’s third congressional district, earning the right to challenge freshman Democratic Rep. John Adler in the fall. Runyan defeated Justin Murphy, a town committeeman who had the support of several local Tea Party organizations.
Runyan, too, had sought the support of the Tea Party movement. But he was also backed by Gov. Chris Christie and New Jersey’s powerful county machines, and had the tacit support of the National Republican Campaign Committee. He cruised to victory along with New Jersey’s five incumbent Republican congressmen, several of whom had Tea Party opponents as well.
The results may suggest that the influence of the Tea Party movement is waning, especially in the battleground suburbs of the Northeast, where their ability to harass and embarrass local Democrats on YouTube had piqued the interest of Republican leaders. Republicans acknowledge that the Northeast will be crucial in their bid to win back the House.
“The Tea Party is more noise than numbers,” said David Wasserman, an editor of the Cook Political Report. “They are very rarely a critical mass in primaries, and certainly not a critical mass in general elections. Republicans like Runyan need to build a broader base of support to win in the fall.”
National Republican strategists have long recognized that reality, and in the moderate suburban districts of New Jersey, Connecticut and New York — where they have targeted as many as a dozen vulnerable Democrats — Republican leaders have supported moderate Republicans with broad appeal rather than the favorite sons of the Tea Party.
That strategy has produced some friction, as on Long Island, where Republicans plan to spend millions to unseat Rep. Tim Bishop, considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country. National Republican officials chose sides early, despite publicly remaining neutral. But their choice conflicted with that of some local Tea Party activists, and the nomination contest has quickly turned into a free-for-all, which could buoy the Democrats in their effort to retain Bishop’s seat.
The results in New Jersey seem to vindicate Republican officials who, despite the popularity of the Tea Party movement, urged their party to nominate candidates with broad appeal. Even last year, when the Tea Party was at its height, New York Republican Chairman Ed Cox took the unpopular view that Republicans needed to appeal to moderates and Democrats to win. “If you’re going to win a majority, you have to be able to appeal beyond just the base of the party,” Cox said.
The question now, of course, is whether the Tea Party organizations will remain loyal to the Republican Party and its effort to win back the House. Tea Party candidates themselves may be difficult to elect, but the manpower and resources of Tea Party organizations are nonetheless invaluable to Republican candidates, especially in the battleground suburbs of the Northeast, where Democratic candidates will be able to rely on the support of organized labor.
Tea Party leaders in marginal districts like Bishop’s have already promised to splinter off from the Republican Party if they disagree.
“The parties haven’t been doing their job — that’s kind of why we exist,” Stephen Flanagan, who heads the Conservative Society for Action, a 3,000-strong Tea Party group on Long Island, said in April. “If they were doing their job and putting up conservative candidates and winning elections, we wouldn’t be here.”