The tea leaves in last week’s primaries

My old friend Jon Lerner is the Republican campaign consultant who operates Red Sea and Basswood Research. This year he is working for some great candidates including Nikki Haley for governor and Tim Scott for Congress in South Carolina and Mike Lee for United States Senate in Utah. Red Sea produced the television ads for these campaigns while Basswood Research conducted the polling.
In South Carolina, Nikki Haley became the first woman in state history ever nominated for governor by either party. In the Republican primary runoff, Haley defeated Rep. Gresham Barrett 65 percent to 35 percent. Jon writes that “Haley ran an inspiring underdog campaign with a strong conservative reform message, and came from far behind to defeat not only a sitting congressman, but also the incumbent state lieutenant governor and attorney general.”
On the South Carolina coast, Tim Scott won the Republican nomination for Congress in a heavily Republican district. In the runoff, Scott defeated Paul Thurmond, son of former U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, by a 68 percent to 32 percent margin. On his way to Tuesday’s victory, Scott defeated a total of eight candidates in the primary, including the son of former South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell. Jon writes that “Tim Scott’s amazing life story is one you are likely to hear more about in the future.”
In Utah, Mike Lee won the GOP U.S. Senate primary, defeating Tim Bridgewater 51 percent to 49 percent. Jon writes that “his hard-fought victory came on the heels of his ouster of 18-year Senate incumbent Bob Bennett at the Utah GOP convention last month. Mike Lee is a conservative champion who will bring a much needed constitutional perspective to the U.S. Senate.”
Last week I received Jon’s email message quoted above celebrating the success of the candidates he was working for in their primary campaigns. Given the importance of these candidates to the future of the GOP, I asked Jon if he would comment further on these campaigns for us. He usually avoids the limelight himself, but he graciously responded to my request as a token of our old friendship. Jon writes:

The primary election victories of Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Mike Lee last Tuesday all arrived under very different direct circumstances. Yet, despite their major differences, they all had an underlying similarity that speaks to the mindset of Republican voters across the nation in the Tea Party Era.
The mainstream media’s caricature of the Tea Party movement as a fringe, or even racist, group of voters could not be further from reality. The Tea Party ethos goes well beyond just those who show up at rallies. The Obama administration has governed so far to the left that it has in a sense radicalized a majority of the Republican Party.
In my primary polling, I have taken to asking this question: “Do you consider yourself to be more closely aligned with the traditional Republican Party, or with the Tea Party movement that has arisen in the past year?” Consistently around half of Republican primary voters now align with the Tea Party. By definition, that goes well beyond a “fringe” group. The Tea Party is all about a series of issues surrounding size-of-government concerns: bailouts, deficits, earmarks, health care takeovers.
In Utah, Mike Lee was able to defeat convention opponent 18-year Senate incumbent Bob Bennett, and primary opponent Tim Bridgewater, by focusing on those very issues. Of course, the radicalizing influence of Obama’s governing has not affected Republicans alone. A Democratic U.S. Senator was defeated in a primary this year in Pennsylvania, and another nearly so in Arkansas, because they were not sufficiently liberal for their party’s primary voters.
The South Carolina results should definitively put to rest any notion of the Tea Party movement being racist. Indian-American Nikki Haley, and African-American Tim Scott won resounding victories among the South Carolina GOP electorate (one of the most conservative in the nation), and they did so with the open backing of local Tea Party organizations. Republican voters overwhelmingly chose candidates who clearly agreed with the Tea Party philosophy irrespective of race or gender.
Haley campaigned with Sarah Palin and called for term limits and opposed taking Obama stimulus money. Tim Scott wrote the bill in the South Carolina legislature to reject Obamacare, and ran TV ads decrying earmarks, even as his runoff opponent Paul Thurmond (son of legendary Senator Strom Thurmond) played the “bring home the bacon” argument against Scott’s anti-earmark position. The Scott campaign was mindful of the potential difficulties that could arise in this campaign because of race, and yet in our polling, there never was any evidence that it was a problem.
The truth is that it’s so easy for the media to cast anti-Obama positions in racial terms, but race has nothing to do with it. It’s about the massive growth of government, and that’s what is galvanizing both the Tea Party movement and Republican primary outcomes.
The best news is that these concerns about government growth, as well as economic stagnancy, go beyond just Republicans. Independents and other groups of swing voters are largely in sync with Republican attitudes on these issues today. It is not dissimilar from how Independents and Democrats were in sync in their views about the Iraq War in 2006 and 2008, with disastrous electoral consequences for the GOP. I suspect we will see a similar shellacking at the polls for Democrats in November.

Jon ended his email regarding the candidates he’s working for by extending his “congratulations to future stars of the conservative movement, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Mike Lee.” We’ll check in with him again in November.

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