Back in their day, the tea party folks were riding high, fueling indignation over alleged government-run death panels, a treasonous Federal Reserve and the like. They commandeered sparsely attended Republican primaries, managing to nominate for Senate seats a dabbler in witchcraft in Delaware, holders of strange views on rape in Missouri and Indiana, and in Nevada, a candidate suggesting armed insurrection if her people didn’t win elections.
All lost — some in races an old-fashioned Republican would have won. In the interest of party self-preservation, Republican leaders sidelined the more extreme tea partiers, or tried to. Meanwhile, the tea party’s approval ratings among the wider electorate crumbled.
Then came the scandal over the IRS’s focus on groups bearing tea party-type names. Finally, the demoted warriors had a real thing to be furious over. That President Obama expressed his own anger, saw the IRS commissioner replaced and supports an investigation made little impression. Last weekend, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called for IRS officials responsible for this targeting to be put in jail.
Some say that by not more closely monitoring America’s tax collecting agency, President Obama handed the Republican Party a big present. Just the appearance of political motive in subjecting a group to extra scrutiny is bad, and this had the appearance.
But unfortunately for the wiser Republicans, the beautifully wrapped present is a boomerang. Give the tea party people a boomerang, and moderate Republicans will get hurt. The first injuries are already being reported.
Virginia is a purple state that twice voted for Obama. The state’s tea party faction has just made the intemperate Kenneth Cuccinelli the Republican nominee for governor. As attorney general, Cuccinelli flamboyantly sued the government over the Affordable Care Act, which the Supreme Court upheld. The court did rule that states did not have to expand Medicaid, as the law envisioned. Eight Republican governors say they’ll do it anyway. Cuccinelli insists that he would not.
Cuccinelli has denounced the scientific consensus on global warming as “junk science” pushed by the United Nations. He’s bashed Gov. Bob McDonnell, a moderate Republican, for working with Democrats on a plan to repair Virginia’s roads. Costs money, you know.
The polls show Cuccinelli tied with likely Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, a rich Washington insider also not high on the lovability scale. Polls also indicate that nearly half the electorate knows little about Cuccinelli. A political pro like McAuliffe is sure to fill the information gap.
If voters haven’t heard about Cuccinelli’s ties to the dubious Jonnie R. Williams, a dietary supplement and face cream promoter, they will. Cuccinelli received nearly $20,000 in gifts and multiple family vacations at the Williams’ vacation mansion. Williams had been paying himself $1 million a year to head a company losing money for the last 10. (McDonnell has apparently partaken even more of Williams’ largesse, piquing the FBI’s interest.)
Years ago, Williams was fined for pumping up Star Scientific’s share price with fantastical claims about its wrinkle-fighting cream. Cuccinelli just so happened to buy Star Scientific stock right before one of its runups. He also neglected to disclose the investment, as required by law.
In any case, the tea party factions are sensing a comeback. Groups in this leaderless movement are now trying to draw a grand circle of government malfeasance around the Obama administration, linking the IRS scandal with Benghazi with the health care reforms. Tea party-linked politicians are scrambling to the microphones, competing for attention.
Yes, the giant boomerang rocket is unwrapped and on the launching pad, ready for liftoff. Flames are firing out the bottom, stoked by growing right-wing passions. Recent history tells us where it will land, unfortunately for moderate Republicans.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is email@example.com