The Tea Party and the 2012 Senate Races.

During the campaign, I predicted that the Tea Party would begin to fade away in 2011, as it got successfully co-opted by congressional Republicans, then divided by the 2012 Republican presidential primary (with its members split among the contenders). But now I'm starting to wonder. Any political movement is invigorated by its conflicts, and there will be some opportunities for the Tea Party to keep its anger train running. In fact, the best opportunity may be the 2012 Senate races.

As this election showed, there are two things that can get you a primary challenge from the right: a general lack of fealty to conservative ideology, or even a moment's lapse in partisanship, say by co-sponsoring a bill with a Democrat. There are 10 Republican seats that will be up in 2012. Let's look at who they are:

John Kyl (AZ): 2
John Barrasso (WY): 4
John Ensign (NV): 5
Roger Wicker (MS): 22
Orrin Hatch (UT): 24
Bob Corker (TN): 26
Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX): 28
Richard Lugar (IN): 34
Scott Brown (MA): 39
Olympia Snowe (ME): 41

For each one I've included a figure derived from the Senators' DW-NOMINATE scores for the 111th Congress. The figure represents the number of senators who are ranked as more conservative than that particular senator. For instance, only two senators -- Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn -- are ranked as more conservative than John Kyl, so he gets a 2. Forty-one Republicans who served during hte 111th were more conservative than Snowe, so she gets a 41. Looking at this list, I only see two who can rest reasonably safely that they won't get such a challenge, Kyle and Barasso.

Ensign is horrifically scandal-tainted, so he probably won't run, and if he did, conservatives would probably mount a challenge just to get him the heck out of there. As for the rest, I think it's probably a good rule of thumb that if you're not among the 20 most conservative members of the Senate, there's a good chance you'll get a primary challenge. Lugar and Snowe are all but guaranteed to get one (in fact, Lugar's primary opponents are already lining up), and while Brown might not just because he's from Massachusetts, Hutchison can probably expect one as well.

Most of these challenges will fail, but there could well be one or two that don't. Add that to the races where the seats are currently held by Democrats, and we could well have a whole new round of Sharron Angles and Christine O'Donnells knocking on the Senate's door two years from now.

-- Paul Waldman

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