The knives were out for Jim DeMint in the Senate last week, as Republicans laid into the South Carolina senator for supporting Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell over Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware's Republican primary and endangering the GOP's chances of taking control of the Senate in November.
Wonder if Sen. Lisa Murkowski will get the same treatment this week?
The Alaska senator lost the Republican primary to her Tea Party-backed challenger, Joe Miller, in a fair fight. But instead of graciously conceding and endorsing the Republican nominee, Murkowski announced Friday that she will continue her campaign as an independent write-in candidate. Polls showed Miller--a West Point grad with a Bronze Star and a Yale law degree--leading Democrat Scott McAdams by six to eight points. Now Murkowski has thrown the race into disarray. Where is the outcry at Murkowski for putting a Republican seat--and the Republican majority--at risk?
GOP leader Mitch McConnell--who helped to engineer Murkowski's rise to the Republican leadership table--has accepted her resignation from her post as vice chairwoman of the Republican Conference. But Murkowski has not been required to give up her position as the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee--a perch she will no doubt use as evidence she can deliver for Alaska. Will McConnell strip her of this role, too--and make clear to Alaska voters that Murkowski will not enjoy the privileges of her GOP seniority if she is elected as an independent in November?
McConnell and other GOP leaders threw down the gauntlet to DeMint last week, telling him it was his responsibility to make sure that O'Donnell won in Delaware. DeMint responded with a "money bomb"--raising, at this writing, more than $214,000 for O'Donnell in a just a few days, with a target of $348,000 by the end of this week. Will McConnell and the GOP leadership produce a "money bomb" for Joe Miller? If delivering Delaware is DeMint's responsibility, then delivering Alaska just became McConnell's responsibility.
In an interview, Miller told me he is confident that he can win with Murkowski in the race: "She was given her job and now she thinks she deserves it. She has disrespected the will of the Alaskan voter. We had the largest turnout of any Republican primary in the history of the state of Alaska. The race was won fair and square. And then in the wake of that, she claims that the election was 'hijacked' and that it was a group of 'extremists' that voted for me. It gets down to the fact that she perceives herself as entitled, and she can't let go of the power she's held for the last eight years."
In that sense of entitlement, Murkowski is not alone. All last week, we heard the GOP establishment complain how the Tea Party is threatening Republican unity by pursuing "ideological purity" at the expense of a "big tent" party. But Tea Party-endorsed candidates are the ones who have stayed within the GOP tent. Rather than launching destructive third-party bids, fiscally conservative insurgents have contested GOP primaries--and when they have lost, they have endorsed their establishment opponents virtually without fail.
Contrast that with the record of the establishment candidates. When it became clear Charlie Crist would lose to Marco Rubio in Florida's Senate race, Crist bolted the GOP and decided to run as an independent. When Arlen Specter saw he would lose to Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania's Senate race, he became a Democrat. And, after losing the GOP nomination in Alaska, Murkowski is running as an independent write-in candidate. And yet, we are told that it is the Tea Party that is dividing the GOP and threatening party unity. For establishment candidates, unity seems to be a one-way street. The message to Tea Party activists across the country is: We want your votes but not your candidates.
The idea that DeMint and the Tea Party are threatening the GOP's chances for reclaiming the majority is absurd. Republicans wouldn't have a shot at taking back either the House or Senate were it not for the Tea Party movement, which has both energized the conservative base and attracted independents to the GOP by promising to reform the party and restore fiscal sanity in Washington. The best way to dispirit the conservative base and lose those independents would be to take back the majority and go back to business as usual.
This may be why DeMint is less concerned with changing who controls the Senate than he is with changing the way the Senate does business--by electing outsiders who are committed to restoring the GOP's reputation as the party of limited government and fiscal discipline.
Regardless of the outcome in Alaska--or who controls the upper chamber after November--there is likely to be a wave of new insurgent senators arriving in Washington. The question is: When those insurgents arrive, will they remember how the Republican leadership fought them--or how the Republican leadership fought for them?
Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.