With a few inexperienced Republican Senate candidates struggling, some analysts are suggesting that the Tea Party damaged the party's chances in November by helping weak candidates win primary elections. That may be true in the Senate, but the GOP has always been more likely to regain its majority in the House. Despite the influence of the Tea Party, Republicans actually have more candidates who have previously held elected office than the Democrats in competitive House races. On candidate quality, Democrats are still at a disadvantage.
Last week, the New York Times's Kate Zernike examined all the Republican candidates running nationwide and identified 129 House candidates and 9 Senate candidates who are closely affiliated with the Tea Party movement. She notes that "the Tea Party has ... handed opportunities to the Democrats by nominating candidates who have struggled" -- particularly Senate nominees Christine O'Donnell (Delaware), Sharron Angle (Nevada), and Rand Paul (Kentucky). However, in terms of candidates, the movement's impact may be overstated. As Zernike notes, "the bulk of the Tea Party candidates are running in districts that are solidly Democratic."
To make this findings more concrete, I combine Zernike's coding of 2010 House candidates with historical data on House elections compiled by UCSD's Gary Jacobson and 2008 and 2010 data generously shared by Dave Rohde, one of my mentors in graduate school at Duke.* (Comparable data for the Senate are not available.)
To assess the strength of the GOP candidates, I consider one of the key indicators from the political science literature on Congressional elections -- previously holding elected office, which Jacobson has identified as a key proxy for candidate quality. While there are exceptions to the rule, experienced politicians tend to be better vetted and less likely to make race-changing mistakes (as O'Donnell and Paul have demonstrated).
When we examine the data, it's clear that the favorable electoral environment has attracted a strong group of Republican candidates. Despite the influence of the Tea Party movement, the GOP actually has more House candidates who have previously held elected office running for open seats than the Democrats do:
Similarly, there are significantly more Republicans who have previously held electoral office challenging incumbents in potentially competitive districts than Democrats (defined as districts in which the presidential nominee of the incumbent's party received less than 60% of the two-party vote in the most recent election):
The quality of the Republican candidates running with Tea Party backing also differ substantially depending on the type of race they are in:
Given the odds that they face, it's not surprising that very few of the challengers in non-competitive districts (where the incumbent party's presidential nominee received more than 60% of the two-party vote) have previously held elected office regardless of whether they are affiliated with the Tea Party movement. The large number of amateur Tea Party candidates in this group (56 out of 58 total TP candidates) are therefore unlikely to significantly hurt the GOP.
More importantly, while it's true that Tea Party candidates are less likely to have previously held elected office in more contested races, the differences are smaller than one might think -- 48% of non-TP challengers in competitive districts (25 of 52) versus 33% of TP challengers in competitive districts (18 of 54) and 53% of non-TP open seat candidates (15 of 28) versus 43% of TP open seat candidates (6 of 14).
In short, the Tea Party movement has affiliated itself with a surprising number of non-amateur politicians in competitive and open-seat races. As a result, the GOP still has a candidate quality advantage in the House races that matter most.
Update 10/22 10:22 AM: More from Slate's Dave Weigel:
If this is surprising, a lot of that has to do with 1) a weird occasional media focus on noncompetitive races and 2) the ability of some smart politicians to brand themselves as "Tea Party" candidates. Marco Rubio, for example, could have run in a previous year as a savvy politician mentored by Jeb Bush. Instead, he introduced himself as the Tea Party in one man. Same happened with Ken Buck, a seasoned local politician who simply defined himself against a politician who'd held a higher office.
As to that first issue, I'm continually surprised that fringe candidates like Ohio's Richard Iott get so much attention; his penchant for dressing up as a Nazi is, of course, weird and stupid, but he never had a chance of winning. I'd add a bit to Nyhan's model, because the Tea Party has swung behind some first-time candidates in House races, mostly businessmen, who are going to win where token candidates used to lose.
Update 10/25 9:45 AM -- More from John Sides:
There is a tendency for some observers to assume that an ideologically driven movement -- especially if it appears to contain some "fringe elements" or whatever -- isn't going to be politically strategic. The emergence of a few high-profile oddball candidates that have the support of the movement -- your Christine O'Donnells -- only seems to further this perception of movements like the Tea Party as somehow lacking the savvy to get behind good candidates. But clearly that's not true, especially in a cycle when every other political dynamic -- a weak economy, a less-than-popular president -- gives qualified Republican candidates an incentive to come forward anyway.
The only caveat I'd add is that Nyhan is only looking at experience, not ideological extremism. For the most part, political scientists have found that the former is very important, while the latter matters more around the margins in most cases. However, it is certainly possible for those with previous electoral experience to be weak candidates (see Sharron Angle, who may well win but only after overcoming an unusual number of gaffes), and it's possible that ideological extremism could be a problem for some of those experienced candidates. Possible, but again, on that we don't have any evidence yet.
All this suggests that the Tea Party, to the extent we can define it as a unified entity, is much more pragmatic than the media usually portray it to be. Remember that Tea Party members enthusiastically backed Scott Brown for the Massachusetts Senate seat despite his very moderate credentials. That is, he stood for basically nothing that they stood for, but they recognized the importance of depriving Democrats of their filibuster-proof majority, so they sucked it up.
* Thanks also to Aaron King and Frank Orlando, my former grad student colleagues at Duke, for doing the hard work of compiling these data. Neither Rohde nor King or Orlando bears any responsibility for this analysis.