Mr. Right and I were discussing the results of this week's Republican primaries a little while ago. He mentioned that some people have claimed that the Tea Party movement had shown its weakness by failing to boost insurgent J. D. Hayworth to victory over John McCain in the Arizona senatorial primary. Mr. Right himself was perplexed by the inconsistency between McCain's victory and a poll showing that a minority of Arizona Republicans had a favorable opinion of the incumbent Senator. He attributed McCain's survival to an open-primary rule in Arizona and to Sarah Palin's refusal, out of respect for her former running mate, to campaign for Hayworth. I reminded him that Palin had, in fact, gone to Arizona to campaign for McCain, but that didn't necessarily change his estimate of her significance as a factor in the Arizona campaign.
Results in Arizona and Alaska raise the question of the co-existence or overlap of a Tea Party movement and a Palin movement. In her home state, an insurgent endorsed by Palin holds a slim lead over Senator Murkowski. Reporters describe the insurgent as a "Tea Party" candidate and his apparent victory as the latest triumph for the TP movement. But Mr. Right and I agree that the outcome may have been the same had there never been a Tea Party movement. Sarah Palin rose to power in Alaska as an enemy of the Murkowski family. According to the history we learned in 2008, Palin wished to be appointed to the U.S. Senate by Governor Murkowski, who instead appointed his own daughter in a stunning but regrettably not uncommon act of political nepotism. The indignant Palin then challenged Gov. Murkowski in a Republican primary and defeated him. Given this history, it'd be plausible for a Palin-sponsored insurgent to defeat a Murkowski without any larger movement to boost him.
Is Palin bigger than the Tea Parties? The Arizona primary might support the claim unless Mr. Right's hunch about the influence of non-Republicans in an open primary proves correct. I don't know enough about Arizona to be able to guess how such voters might have behaved. On one hand, people who cross party lines to vote in an open primary often like to make mischief by voting for the candidate they consider least electable in November. On that assumption, I'd expect them to vote for the extremist Hayworth. On the other hand, Arizona may be so securely Republican that the primary winner would be assured of a November victory. In that case, non-Republican voters would want to prevent the extremist from advancing. Exit polls may reveal the truth if any were taken; until then we're left with the bald fact that in a high-profile contest in which Palin went against the presumed will of Tea Partiers, the presumptive TP candidate lost. I don't know if there is or has been a more purely objective test on this year's schedule: a closed Republican primary in which Palin has campaigned against a perceived or designated Tea Party tribune. Of course, Arizona may prove an exceptional case because of Palin's sense of obligation to McCain. Elsewhere, she might be cunning enough not to perpetuate the appearance of defying the will of the TPs.
Palin's greatest power down the line may be an ability to keep Tea Partiers tethered to the Republican party. Even if she doesn't appear on the 2012 national ticket, if she manages to become the public face of the GOP as a campaigner and fundraiser she may continue to convince would-be insurgents that the Republicans are their party. But many TPs probably feel that way already. I see no indication that Hayworth, after denouncing McCain for months, will continue to campaign against him as an independent. Just as most disgruntled liberals and progressives act as if the Democratic party is theirs, so disgruntled conservatives and reactionaries still identify with the Republican party. In both cases, the real meaning of their feelings isn't that the party belongs to them, but that they belong to the party and the movement for which it supposedly stands. That will be their downfall, but who will they take down with them?