In yesterday's Repulican primary in Alabama's 1st Congressional District, the establishment candidate -- Bradley Byrne -- defeated Dean Young by 52.5 to 47.5 percent. Young tried to claim the Tea Party mantle but really he was motivated mainly by religion, and he only sounded passionate while talking about his own evangelical Christianity or America's moral decline.
Byrne was backed by business interests with hundreds of thousands of dollars, including $199,000 from the Chamber of Commerce, and they are claiming this as a big win. And I suppose it is. Less radical Republicans are also pointing to the governor's races in Virginia, where evangelical leader Ken Cucchinelli lost to Democratic party hack Terry McAuliffe, and New Jersey, where moderate blowhard Chris Christie won a huge landslide. But I don't think things are so simple. Both Cuccinelli and Young were defined mainly by religion, and as I have always said religion by itself is not a winner in American politics. Both tried to take on some of the Tea Party energy but did not really succeed. Cuccinelli actually drew a serious challenge from libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who focused exclusively on cutting taxes and reducing government and won 6% of the vote after polling as high as the teens. I think Cuccinelli's real problem was the way he habitually talks, which is saturated with evangelical imagery and vocabulary. He established instant rapport with any group of conservative Protestants he spoke to, but everyone else found him weird.
So yesterday's results were more a defeat for evangelical Christianity as a political force than the Tea Party as such. A Tea Party candidate who can talk conservative Christianity, small government, and populist anger will still be very tough to beat. Another thing about these elections is that they show candidates matter. I think Cuccinelli's real problem was himself, not his platform, and in Alabama Byrne came across as smarter, better informed, more likeable, and generally more the sort of man most people want representing them. Christie's success is all about his personality -- that and his tax cuts are really all most New Jersey voters care about.
Perhaps Republicans will conclude from these races that being seen as the most conservative candidate is not the only thing that matters, and there may be some backing away from the angry style. But in terms of issues, you are not likely to see any Republican any time soon stand up for a national health care plan, or for raising taxes as part of a budget balancing deal.