Over the last couple national election cycles the Tea Party movement has had some successes, such as electing the likes of Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas in the face of “establishment” resistance. But the Tea Party has had notable losses. In places such as Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, and Nevada, Senate seats that should have been easy wins for Republicans have turned into losses as Tea Party candidates who were at once too extreme for the state and also political amateurs who made glaring mistakes essentially cost Republicans control of the U.S. Senate.
We might see something similar at play in South Dakota as candidates Stace Nelson, Larry Rhoden, and Annette Bosworth each run to the right of the presumptive front runner, former governor Mike Rounds. Rounds, like many of the “establishment” Republicans defeated by Tea Party candidates, is denounced as a RINO, a Republican In Name Only, i.e., not a true conservative.
Those who throw around that RINO phrase might gain from a little historical perspective. Looking at the U.S. Senate in 1985, a year when Republicans had a majority in the U.S. Senate, is illustrative. Republicans in the Senate that year included the likes of Mark Hatfield, Nancy Kassebaum, Lowell Weicker, Robert Stafford, John Chaffee, John Heinz, Arlen Specter, David Durenberger, and more. All of these Senators were honest-to-goodness moderate and even liberal Republicans.
In that year of 1985 fully twenty Republicans were rated by the American Conservative Union as voting conservative less than 70 percent of the time. More telling, nine Republicans voted conservative less than half the time. Contrast that with 2012. That year only 11 Republicans voted conservative less than seventy percent of the time, while only five fell below 50 percent.
These are one year snap shots. ACU now keeps lifetime ratings, which they did not in the 1980s. In 2012, five Republican Senators had lifetime ACU scores under 70 percent. One has to guess at 1985, but most of those 20 Republicans below 70 percent that year were consistent moderate to liberal Republicans. It is fair to estimate that at least 15 of them had lifetime ACU ratings below 70 percent.
What is the point of this exercise? The point is that as recently as the Reagan 1980s the Republican Party was considerably to the left of today’s party. Even if Mike Rounds is in the middle of the Republican Party today, he would be significantly to the right of the typical Republican senator of the 80s.
Tea Party voters should realize that there is more to politics than simply taking the right positions. You are also supposed to actually accomplish things. The art of legislation is the art of compromise. Folks who cannot or will not compromise will not actually accomplish any of their goals.
Further, Tea Party voters should take stock of how far right the Republican Party has moved. The fact that a conservative like Mike Rounds is now considered by some to be “moderate” is a victory to be celebrated, not a cause to purge the ranks of all who are not pure.
Jon D. Schaff is a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. His opinions are his own, not those of the university.