The Tea Party Rapture, And Its Effect On Conservative Politics

I haven’t made much of my column this week at the American Spectator here at the Hayride so far, which as you might imagine is about to change with this post.

The subject of the AmSpec piece is the Cassidy-Maness race, and an examination of why Rob Maness is having trouble getting much traction. Public Policy Polling, the Democrat firm which specializes in producing polls with unrealistic samples to generate hopeful numbers for its side (there are Republican firms which do similar things), has a survey out this week which gives Maness his highest percentage yet: eight percent. That survey puts Bill Cassidy at 27 percent, but even it can’t show Mary Landrieu in the lead in a head-to-head with Cassidy (they’re tied at 47).

The prime reason Maness is struggling to emerge as a major candidate in the race isn’t ideology.

Given the current national mood, which the majority of Louisiana’s Republicans share, you would expect the voters to look for a candidate with a bit more conservative fire in the belly than Cassidy. But this isn’t an open seat, and Republicans have been unsuccessful in three prior attempts to knock Landrieu off. Picking up a sixty-point swing on those scorecards, rather than the eighty or eighty-five a pure conservative would promise, is plenty enough for most conservative voters around the state even if Cassidy might not be their dream candidate.

Maness has other problems besides the difficulty of his candidacy.

Chief among them is that he’s not a native Louisianan. Maness’s thirty-year Air Force career led him all over the country, including a five-year stop at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City. He settled in Madisonville, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, after his retirement. But Louisiana is a state where some 80 percent of the population is native-born—and “where’d you go to high school?” is a frequent question. It shouldn’t be a political impediment to be a transplant, but it is.

Maness’s struggles with building a local organization were hamstrung by his lack of local connections, and things have only become worse when the majority of his initial campaign team were replaced by political operatives from out-of-state; his current campaign manager, Michael Byrne, is late of Steve Lonegan’s unsuccessful run against Cory Booker in the special election for Senate in New Jersey last year.

And with each attempt to paint Cassidy as an insufficiently conservative opponent to Landrieu, he runs into another problem: the perception among some that he’s a stalking horse for the Democrat. Maness’s employer upon leaving the Air Force was the New Orleans-based utility Entergy Corp., which has been reliable in its political donations to Democrats and quite friendly to the Landrieu family. When Maness spends more time attacking Cassidy than Landrieu he unwittingly gives weight to the probably-specious charge that he’s not who he says he is.

Naturally, the piece riled up the pro-Maness crowd, who are now accusing your author of being a RINO.

I don’t care too much about that; we deal in serious discussions of conservative philosophy here and we take positions which we think pretty clearly speak for themselves as to whether we’re committed to conservatism. Accusations of fake conservatism against me don’t particularly resonate with people who have half a brain or who actually do things to move us away from the neo-communist/Old Socialist path the Democrats have us on.

It’s a little off-putting to see the word “RINO” misused, though. That used to be a powerful label to put on people who actually were Republicans in name only. When the Arlen Specters and Charlie Crists used to roam the countryside, it was worthwhile to sling that epithet around. Next door in Mississippi it’s an entirely accurate charge to level against Thad Cochran and his camp of corrupt porkbarrellers.

But I see a lot of Maness people throwing that charge around in response to criticism of their camp which has nothing to do with ideology. They have a candidate who can accurately be painted as a carpetbagger. In Louisiana, that’s not a prescription for winning. And their candidate’s campaign staff is now populated with people from out-of-state, which only makes that problem worse. Their messaging comes off as an attempt to ingratiate him to Louisiana culture but it misses the mark; Louisianans wrestle alligators on Swamp People, not in real life, and Louisiana’s voters know it.

These are not ideological statements. Ideology is not Rob Maness’ problem. You can’t move Louisiana’s electorate to the right by running conservative statewide candidates who don’t resonate with the public for non-ideological reasons. The basic political skill of your campaign is a PREREQUISITE for running a competitive race, and if you tout conservatism while having the effect of helping the liberal candidate win you’re going to do damage to the cause you say you’re for.

If Rob Maness was Ted Cruz or Rand Paul or Mike Lee, I’d be on his side. If he was one of those guys Bill Cassidy might have some trouble making the runoff in November.

But if you’ve seen Maness speak you know he’s not Ted Cruz. That’s not a shot at Maness; Cruz is absolutely exceptional. He’s one of the greatest orators this country has going, if not the greatest orator. Paul and Lee are only a notch or two below him. These guys are the best of the best. But if you’re going to run as an insurgent candidate in a race like this one, where we’re trying to unseat a Democrat incumbent we’ve fallen short against in three very frustrating attempts, you’ve got to be in that class.

Maness’ national support came largely from the Senate Conservatives Fund. SCF didn’t recruit Maness to run, and they didn’t back him straight out of the gate. SCF looked around and tried to recruit a different candidate, but couldn’t get anybody else to jump in. They would have backed Jeff Landry or John Fleming, or maybe even state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, if any of them had decided to run. Sure, Maness can say he convinced them to back him rather than stay out, and he’s not wrong there. But the point is that he’s never been able to present himself as Louisiana’s version of Ted Cruz, because he’s not.

Just agreeing with Ted Cruz doesn’t make you Ted Cruz. It takes a bit more than that. But a lot of his supporters, who demand to be recognized as the voice of the Tea Party in Louisiana, refuse to accept this fact. And that points me to something which becomes clearer as this campaign – and others – develops.

Namely, that with respect to a lot of the folks in the Tea Party movement is that there has been a “rapture” of sorts.

When the Tea Party blossomed in 2009 and 2010, it brought lots of really outstanding people into conservative politics who hadn’t been in it before. And the infusion of passion, talent and principle those folks brought with them reinvigorated a conservative movement which had been all but ground into dust by the George W. Bush administration and its descent into crony capitalism and runaway federal spending (which we will stipulate looks like Calvin Coolidge-style frugality in comparison to what we have now).

But what happened is that those talented, passionate folks made their way into mainstream Republican politics in large numbers. When Democrats howl that the GOP has been “taken over” by the Tea Party, they’re not wrong. There are candidates being talked about as RINO’s right now who would have been considered “dangerously” conservative a decade ago, and that is due 100 percent to all the Tea Party people who became Republican people.

But because a lot of the Tea Party veterans in question are working in mainstream conservative politics, they’re not leading the local Tea Party group anymore. And the local Tea Party group, in a lot of cases, is run by the folks “left behind” by the Rapture. They’re the “post-rapture” crowd, and they so badly want to be relevant that they careen from one weird issue to another, and get more shrill and hysterical by the day. We’ve seen this with Obama’s birth certificate, which is actually a fairly interesting issue in that Obama has (purposefully?) failed to de-bunk it but has been messaged in such an amateurish way as to marginalize people who do see something fishy in his background. We’ve seen it with the endless Agenda 21 roadshow. We’ve seen it with Common Core, which I don’t support but the claims made about it are often so easily debunked as to cast a somewhat hucksterish quality to the opposition. And on the outer fringes we see it with the mythical FEMA concentration camps, the supposed thousands of Russian troops patrolling the American countryside at night, the federal government’s monopolistic purchases of ammunition in a supposed back-door attempt at gun control (there is more ammo being manufactured and sold right now than ever, so if that conspiracy was real it’s one of the most counterproductive and stupid of all time). And we see it with the insistence that there are harmful chemicals being sprayed behind behind commercial jets all over the country and hidden in their contrails.

No, not everybody who runs a Tea Party group believes in all this stuff. But too many do. And there is a definite tendency among them to back minor candidates like Rob Maness and spend their time attacking people like Cassidy who legitimately would move the Senate to the Right – if for no other reason than that Harry Reid would get fired, though there are other reasons.

And the “left behind” gang, which has built its own Establishment up in Washington and has developed a means to raise money on its own, tends to muddy the waters by hurling epithets like “RINO” at people who are actually on their side. When you do that you actually allow the real RINO’s, like the Thad Cochrans of the world, to skate. There’s a constructive way to move the party closer to its core principles, and there’s a destructive way not to.

Let’s not forget what Milton Friedman taught us – a lesson that the folks caught up in the Rapture understand…

The corrupt K Street crowd which still hangs on to control of the Republican Party notwithstanding, the Republican Party as a whole is so much better than it was 10 years ago it’s actually breathtaking. Look at every Republican politician of note under, say, 50 years old, and what you’ll see is a level of passion and principle that the party has never had before. It didn’t have it during the Reagan years, which is why Democrats spread the lie that Reagan would be considered a RINO now, and it didn’t have it when the party rode the Contract For America into a House majority in 1994.

That’s due to the Tea Party. No question about it. It’s due to the Tea Party folks who, in our Rapture analogy, ascended into mainstream conservative politics and will ultimately run the K Street moneychangers out of the RNC temple. Those people have, in Friedman’s words, made it politically profitable for the wrong people to believe the right things.

But a lot of the “left behind” crowd are on the sidelines shooting mortars at the party, and the people they’re really aiming at are the folks they inherited the Tea Party from.

And they’re doing it not due to ideology, but because they can raise money that way and pretend to be relevant.

We have a lot of that going on in Maness’ campaign. So far there isn’t a lot of reason to think that will get Mary Landrieu re-elected, but we won’t know for sure until November.

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