By Juan Williams - 05/12/14 06:00 AM EDT
The Tea Party is getting clobbered.
First, Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House and a non-Tea Party candidate, won the GOP Senate primary in his state last week. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), a frequent target of Tea Party venom, also easily defeated his Tea Party rivals in a House primary.
Second, a Gallup poll showed Tea Party support at a low of 22 percent nationally with the key decline directly tied to a drop in approval among Republicans.
Yet Tea Party politics continues to paralyze Congress.
Last week, the Republican majority in the House ignored the need for legislation to deal with jobs, energy and immigration. Instead they pandered to their Tea Party base by voting to seat a select committee for a 14th investigation of Benghazi.
The House Republicans wasted more time with a vote to hold Lois Lerner, an IRS official, in contempt. They did so despite months of investigation by the FBI and congressional hearings that failed to find any evidence of criminal acts.
In the Senate, the Tea Party continues to scare the GOP minority by threatening all incumbent Republicans who agreed to any budget deal with President Obama or helped to pass the Senate immigration reform package. But after last week’s primary elections, The Wall Street Journal summed up the threats as a big bust.
“At this point few substantial challenges have materialized, threatening the credibility of the groups that made those threats, including Freedom Works, the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund,” the Journal observed.
Financial support from the Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads and endorsements from establishment Republicans, including Mitt Romney, Haley Barbour and Jeb Bush, has also helped bolster more centrist candidates against the Tea Party fringe.
Even the most threatened Republicans, including Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the GOP senate leader, are ahead of their Tea Party primary challengers. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) is another establishment figure who looks set to rebuff a challenge from the hard right.
Despite these shifting politics, establishment Republicans in the Senate continue to defer to House Tea Party Republicans. They are still allowing them to define the Republican brand with their refusal to get anything done and their desire to block everything associated with President Obama. The result is gridlock that has made Congress into a joke.
“If you want to get paid for not working you should run for Congress just like everyone else,” Obama said to laughs at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner recently.
Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), the head of the Democratic National Committee, explained the Tea Party’s continued stranglehold on the GOP brand despite their primary election losses as symptomatic of establishment Republicans being “pulled to the right.”
But the question is why a minority inside the GOP continues to call the shots on the party’s behavior in Congress. One possible answer came in the Gallup organization’s analysis of its own poll: “Tea Party supporters will continue to be a presence in American politics because of their apparent motivation and interest in election outcomes, factors that, more than likely, will translate into support for candidates, and higher election turnout.”
That analysis is based on poll numbers that showed 43 percent of Tea Party Republicans said they have given “a lot of thought” to the midterm elections as compared to 26 percent of all other Republicans and only 19 percent of non-Republicans. In addition, 52 percent of Tea Party Republicans said they are “enthusiastic” about casting a vote in the November elections. Only 35 percent of all other Republicans and 29 percent of non-Republicans said they were looking forward to voting in the upcoming elections.
That Tea Party energy could be the difference between Republicans winning or losing the six Senate seats they need to gain a Senate majority. The Tea Party's most fervent supporters, according to the Gallup poll, tend to be men who attend church every week and self-identify as conservatives.
No Republican is willing to take the risk of alienating that loyal base by moving away from the daily theatrics of another vote against healthcare reform, another Benghazi probe, and another attack on Lois Lerner.
Even Boehner, who has dared to criticize Heritage Action for its hardball Tea Party politics, recently told a Rotary Club audience in his home district in Ohio that “we in public service respect the fact that they [the Tea Party] brought energy to the political process.”
But Boehner drew a line: “I don’t have any issue with the Tea Party,” he said. “I have issues with organizations in Washington who raise money purporting to represent the Tea Party…who are against a budget deal the President and I cut that will save $2.4 trillion over ten years… [They don’t say] we protected 99 percent of the American people from an increase in their taxes. They were against that too… [They] exist for the sheer purpose of raising money to line their own pockets.”
Establishment Republicans such as Boehner had a good showing at the polls last week. The news is slow to reach the rest of the GOP on Capitol Hill.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.