This November, America goes to the ballot box to elect not only the President but also the Congress that will either implement or obstruc, the White House programme. The House of Representatives is likely to remain in the control of Republicans, but the Senate --- where Democrats currently enjoy a slight majority, aided by the support of the chamber's two Independents --- is a less predictable story. Conservative Republicans believe they have the opportunity to overturn the Democrats' slender advantage, and, just as importantly, return new Senators who will align with the Tea Party Caucus.
That strategy took on the shape of the possible on Tuesday in Indiana when Richard Mourdock, a conservative heavily backed by pro-market and Tea Party groups from outside the state, defeated six-term Senator Dick Lugar in the GOP primary. Only four months ago the conservative Washington Examiner, in an editorial proclaiming conservatives can build an un-bossable Senate, ranked Mourdock's campaign as a “long-shot challenge” to an incumbent.
The Examiner article held out the same chances of success for conservatives in Utah in defeating Orrin Hatch, another six-term Senator, in a June primary. The polls currently suggest that Hatch should retain the Republican nomination, but his rival, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, is beginning to make headway with the argument "It's Time" --- which proved effective against 80-year-old Lugar --- for the 78-year-old Hatch to retire.
The Examiner is more bullish about the chances of conservatives winning primaries, or taking open seats where incumbents have retired, in Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Missouri, Nebraska, and North Dakota. And they have left out Ohio, where Josh Mandel, a favourite of Sen. Jim DeMint's leadership PAC Senate Conservatives Fund, is trying to unseat Democrat Sherrod Brown.
Conservative Republicans replacing establishment Republicans does not mean that they will automatically win against Democratic rivals in November. Democrats are optimistic that Sen. Lugar's defeat offers them hope in taking the Senate seat in Indiana. Still, Mourdock's victory over his veteran opponent illustrates that conservatives unhappy with, or distrustful of, their Presidential candidate are making gains in their attempt to move the Senate to the Right.
Dan McLaughlin RedState argues that Mourdock's victory signals that conservatives have won the opening skirmish of Operation Counterweight.The term was coined in June 2011, but the idea has been mooted in different forms since the successes of conservative candidates in the 2010 mid-term elections. McLaughlin's conclusion summarises why some conservatives see the Senate as a more important prize than the White House this November:
In the presidential race, we go to war with the nominee we have. And we should unite behind him, because he’s the only thing standing between us and another term of Obama. But this is not Mitt Romney’s party, it’s ours. We deserve a Senate that will stand up to both Romney and Obama.
With six months to go, Mourdock's victory in Indiana GOP primary may not be a harbinger of an increased conservative presence in the Senate, but it is a powerful reminder that the Tea Party, and the national organisations that financed Mourdock's win, are still a force in American politics.
A consequence of this sustained effectiveness of the Tea Party message is that current Republican legislators are using policy differences to keep their conservative base fired up. On Monday, Rep. Paul Ryan's House Budget Committee marked up legislation that includes cuts to welfare programmes like food stamps and Meals on Wheels. Senate Republicans on Tuesday meanwhile, used the filibuster to prevent a vote on extending an interest rate reduction on student loans, paid for by increased taxes on some small businesses.
Ryan's measure will not pass the Senate, and Republicans will come to an accommodation that extends student loan rates. But a more conservative Senate after November will only entrench these partisan differences. Even with a Mitt Romney victory and a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, Democrats are likely to maintain a minority capable of filibustering conservative legislation. And with an Obama victory, but with a more conservative Senate, it is a struggle to see what meaningful legislation he can pass though a hostile Congress without conceding unpalatable changes to programmes like Social Security.
This matters because of the crucial policy decisions that must be made by a new Congress and President. Peter Orszag, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama Administration, has laid out the January scenario: “The nation is hurtling toward what has been called 'taxmageddon', the enormous tax increases and spending cuts scheduled for the beginning of 2013. At around the same time, we will also be spending some more quality time with our old friend: the debt limit.”
It would take a crystal ball to know what the full ramifications of a more conservative Senate would be, but a return to compromise as a guiding principle is not one of them. Iff it does become 'un-bossable,' especially with a Democratic President, and with 'taxmegeddon' approaching where the two parties have irreconcilable differences, it is increasingly hard to see what the next Congress can do to avoid a potentially catastrophic gridlock.
And the implications of Lugar's loss in Indiana go beyond the consequences of a conservative Senate. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), House Majority Leader, angered conservatives with his support for Sen. Lugar's establishment candidacy, as he has done with his backing of other "moderate" candidates, at least in the eyes of the Tea Party. Once a favourite of Tea Party enthusiasts, Cantor's commitment to the conservative cause is now openly questioned. Without going as far as to accuse him of a betrayal of Tea Party principles, RedState recently noted that Cantor “wants a more docile, pliable, controllable caucus — one that will do as it is told by its party leaders, not its constituents".
The troubling implication of those words is that along with a conservative Senate convinced of its electoral mandate to be a counterweight to the Presidency, we could see a conservative House prepared to rebel against the policy decisions of the Republican establishment leadership, even if that comes from a Republican President.
Abraham Lincoln once claimed that a “House divided against itself cannot stand". He used the biblical quotation in the context of an America that could not continue half-slave and half-free, but it raises the question of how long this Republican Party can stay united in the face of its fundamental differences over the role of the Federal Government.