When Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., uttered the phrase "legitimate rape" after winning the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2012, a certain sort of political watcher concluded that the Tea Party had made another massive mistake.
"Mr. Akin, a six-term member of Congress who is backed by Tea Party conservatives, made it clear that his opposition to the practice was nearly absolute, even in instances of rape," the New York Times reported.
And Akin remains associated with the Tea Party in the minds of many political reporters. For instance, the summary of a Daily Beast item on the 2014 Georgia Senate race explains that "there will be no Peach state Todd Akin after the disparate Tea Party strands in Georgia failed to produce a competitive candidate."
But Akin only won his nomination in part because disparate Tea Party strands in Missouri supported competing candidates. Akin had wanted the support of the Tea Party activists, and received the endorsement of his House colleague Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who had Tea Party credibility.
Otherwise, the Tea Party activists and leaders supported the rest of the field. Sarah Palin endorsed Sarah Steelman, the former state treasurer; so did the Tea Party Express. FreedomWorks, on the other hand, backed John Brunner. Akin only achieved Tea Party status in the media when he made that incorrect, ill-fated comment.
Akin's campaign history is worth recalling because the "Tea Party = stupid" mentality seems to persist in this election cycle, as evidenced by recent coverage of Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Ben Sasse, a candidate advised by my brother Jordan Gehrke during his successful bid to win the Republican nomination to replace retiring Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.
"Ben Sasse and Tom Cotton have a lot in common: Republican candidacies for the Senate, Ivy League advanced degrees -- a Yale Ph.D. for Mr. Sasse, a Harvard law degree for Mr. Cotton -- and a tour of duty in the white-shoe world of management consulting," the New York Times' Jonathan Weisman wrote. "One more thing: They are running as common-man conservatives from the heartland under the banner of the Tea Party. The résumés of Mr. Sasse, who won the Republican primary in Nebraska on Tuesday, and Mr. Cotton, who is challenging Sen. Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, do not exactly fit the profile of populists."
When Reid Wilson discouraged Washington Post readers from "jumping to conclusions that the tea party beat the establishment" in Nebraska (even though the Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed Sasse against the establishment-backed Shane Osborn when Sasse's support was in single digits) the second reason provided was "Sasse has a Ph.D."
Weisman and Wilson seem to believe that there's something inconsistent about being educated and having Tea Party support, but electoral history proves otherwise.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was the Tea Party's first big victory in 2010. Tea Party voters appreciated his law degree from Brigham Young University and clerkship for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, because it underpinned his biggest selling point: his ability to argue against the constitutionality of Obamacare.
The imaginary dialogue I have summarizing his appeal pits an average conservative against Donald Verrilli, President Obama's solicitor general. The voter says, "the individual mandate is unconstitutional." Verrilli maintains that it is, under the Commerce Clause, and the voter replies, "you just wait until Mike Lee gets here, he'll set you straight."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also benefited from this kind of appeal, and he's made good on their hopes since he arrived, especially in the fight over government spending in October.
"Cruz's talkathon revealed that there was substance behind the sizzle that he represents to the Republican base," the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza noted in September. "He spent the vast majority of the 21 hours he held the floor discoursing at length about the problems with Obamacare (and the Republican Party). In so doing, he laid out a comprehensive -- and largely consistent -- worldview about how policy and politics inside and outside of Washington should work."
Tea Party voters like that kind of thing. Sasse pitched himself to voters by saying, "I've read the 2,300 page bill. It's not just bad … it's worse than you think." He drove around the state with a stack of the Obamacare regulations, which he discussed in detail at town hall meetings.
It may be too small a sample size to provide a general principle, but Sasse's victory suggests that though the Tea Party has changed a bit since 2010, the focus on repealing Obamacare remains the same.
Lee and Cruz, as attorneys, were elected to make the case against the constitutionality of President Obama's signature health care law. Sasse has his own Harvard degree, but he's not a lawyer.
Two years after the Supreme Court upheld the individual mandate, the Tea Party is looking for leaders who can fight Obamacare on policy grounds.