Sean Duffy and Chip Cravaack are the emblematic politicians of the 2010 congressional elections: Tea Party-backed Republicans who won in heavily Democratic districts and succeeded two of the most powerful figures in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Duffy, a sports commentator and former district attorney, won the Wisconsin seat held for 40 years by the Democrat David Obey, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, who retired. Cravaack, a Navy veteran and commercial-airline pilot, narrowly defeated House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, the longest-serving House member from Minnesota.
These upsets reflected the energy of the Tea Party in 2010. Duffy’s campaign was fueled by his opposition to President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, which Obey helped craft; Cravaack was powered by his rejection of Obama’s health-care proposal, which Oberstar strongly backed.
While neither was an official Tea Party member, both rode the wave. Duffy praised the movement and the right-wing talk-show host Glenn Beck. Tea Party rallies in Oberstar’s sprawling northern Minnesota district sparked Cravaack’s campaign.
Both now face tough re-elections and have tempered their tone, illustrating the political realities facing a number of the 84 newcomers to the House in the Republican tide two years ago. Duffy has said he isn’t a Tea Party member; he occasionally bucks his party, for example by voting to continue federal funding for public broadcasting. When asked if he’d cut his own $174,000 salary -- a favorite Tea Party target -- the father of six said he would do so only if all government employees cut theirs, too, saying he was “struggling” to get by.
Cravaack, in a recent interview with the Associated Press, depicted himself as a centrist. He has cast a number of pro-labor union votes in line with his working-class district. The conservative Club for Growth has rated him the least conservative of the four Republican House members from Minnesota.
Neither congressman was willing to be interviewed.
The freshman Republicans, many of whom were embraced by Tea Party activists, are a force. While they don’t form a monolithic bloc, they have pushed their party and the House to the right. It’s very probable that Speaker John Boehner would have finalized a spending-cut and tax-increase debt deal with Obama last summer if he hadn’t felt the heat from this group.
They consistently pressured the leadership and the spending committees to pare back outlays. The House has voted 33 times to repeal Obama’s health-care law, a signature Tea party issue in 2010.
Yet substantive changes have been minimal. The health-care overhaul remains, as does the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory measure. The vast reduction in the size of government, promised in scores of campaigns two years ago, hasn’t materialized.
Almost all these freshmen continue to stress conservative issues in the House and in seeking re-election. More than a few from safe districts are singing the same tune as last time. A few, who are in serious danger of losing, such as Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle from Syracuse, New York, continue to embrace the Tea Party.
Others are moving away. Another Republican congresswoman from New York, Nan Hayworth, who only a year ago said she “belonged to a Tea Party group,” more recently has bragged about voting with Democrats and Obama: “I’m one of the members of the House majority, who has voted most frequently -- actually about a third of the time I voted the way President Obama has also supported voting.”
For most Republicans, especially the freshman House members, there is nothing more sacrosanct than tax cuts, or not raising taxes. Representative Rick Crawford of Arkansas recently proposed a surtax on millionaires, a variation on an Obama initiative. Last week, Crawford also voted to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy; hardly the first time a U.S. politician had it both ways.
Another of the recurring themes of many Tea Party-backed Republican challengers in 2010 was their antipathy to Wall Street, particularly what they termed the “federal bailout” of big banks. Representative Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, a gospel musician, ran successfully as an advocate for “Main Street,” as opposed to Wall Street. Since arriving in Washington, he has found harmony with Wall Street money. He has received more than $11,500 from the political action committees of Bank of America Corp., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co.
There’s no record of any Fincher legislation that goes after Wall Street.
With most of the Tea Party candidates holding firm, tensions suddenly are bursting out among the much-smaller group of more centrist House Republicans.
Some have gone public, complaining that the leadership pays too much attention to the right-wing elements. One of the more prominent centrists, the nine-term Ohio Congressman Stephen LaTourette, a Boehner ally, announced his retirement last week, saying he was fed up with the rightward drift.
He’s the exception. Barring some unforeseen change, the Republicans are expected to keep control of the House in this year’s elections. That is likely to embolden Tea Party conservatives to be even more forceful, possibly pushing the remaining more-traditional Republicans to break ranks. Just when we thought the gridlock in Washington couldn’t get any worse.
(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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