The rise of the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010 brought not only a more conservative brand of politics to Washington, but at times simply a more rude one: South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson shouting “you lie” at President Obama as he spoke to Congress, Donald Trump’s comments on Obama’s birth and grades, the numerous Republicans calling the president a socialist.
But the reign of the incendiary-at-all-costs Republicans seems at its end.
Florida Republican Allen West finally conceded defeat to Democrat Patrick Murphy on Tuesday, but even if he had come back to Congress, he would have been a marginalized figure, as he had little standing among House Republicans who consider him a loose cannon. It’s no accident that less edgy figures like Utah House candidate Mia Love, not Trump or West, earned speaking slots at the Republican National Convention this summer. Romney rarely employed the harsh, anti-Obama rhetoric of Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrich, all of whom he ran against in the GOP primary.
By the end of the 2012 campaign, FOX News was rarely featuring Palin, once one of the networks most-used political guests and a key figure in inciting anger on the right against President Obama from 2008 to 2010. South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the other black Republican elected in 2010, already wielded more influence inside the halls of Congress, even as West was far more famous because of his FOX appearances.
Now, as Republicans look to expand the party’s reach, the tone of figures like West and Trump will be even less helpful and that is likely to make them figures who are even more at the fringe of the party. It’s not clear how exactly Republicans can reach women or minorities more effectively, but it’s hard to imagine future GOP nominees will have multiple appearances with the race-baiting Trump, as Romney did. West acquired attention in part because he was an African-American who would loudly criticize President Obama, a point that will be less important to the GOP as Obama will no longer be on the ballot.
To be sure, the Tea Party, which West and Trump are closely associated with, is not dead. Local Tea Party groups in states have gained huge influence over the last four years, and they will continue to press for the most conservative candidate in primaries. And as one can tell from the sharp attacks on Susan Rice from Republicans like John McCain, the GOP is not going to simply allow Obama to do what he wants in a second term. FOX News is likely to remain a center of Obama opposition, and some conservative activists will no doubt miss West’s blunt style.
But the tone of the GOP was shifting even before the 2012 election, and the defeat of West will accelerate that movement. It’s not really towards the center on any policy issues, as some of the emerging figures in the party, such as Texas Senator-elect Ted Cruz or Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, are just as or even more conservative than West or Palin. (Immigration, on which the Republicans are moving to the political left, is an exception to this.)
Instead, the Republicans are moving towards more traditional politicians whose credentials are experience (McCain) or policy expertise (Paul Ryan) and not simply making controversial comments, as West was known for.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr