The conventional wisdom in the political class is that Tea Party-inspired primary challenges of recent years have had decidedly mixed success. Sure, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee have beaten sitting senators and establishment-anointed candidates, changing the issue terrain and nature of debate in the Senate. But most Tea Party candidates imploded.
That view largely misses the point. Interest groups seeking more influence within their party should think more like class-action trial lawyers: While it would be great to beat the company, the real reason to fight is not to win a 43-cent check for every plaintiff but to change corporate behavior in a lasting way.
Seen this way, even widely mocked far-right challengers have had lasting impact. Although Senate nominees Christine O’Donnell (Delaware), Sharron Angle (Nevada), and Richard Mourdock (Indiana) lost, their primary wins over establishment candidates terrified some other senators, causing them to move right. Witness the pandering of Senate Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn since 2010 to their home-state counterparts Paul and Cruz. Even very marginal primary losers like Arizona’s J.D. Hayworth had an impact, temporarily moving John McCain to the right on key issues like immigration. (McCain, who appears unlikely to seek reelection in 2016, has since shifted back.)
When tough votes arise, many Republican senators can’t help but consider ex-Senators Dick Lugar of Indiana and Robert Bennett of Utah -- both unceremoniously booted in primaries -- which usually leads to appeasement of the Tea Party. That’s the nature of politics. As congressional scholar Gary Jacobson has documented, politicians run scared, altering their behavior in anticipation of future challenges. That’s why it is helpful, but not necessary, for interest groups seeking power within a party to get a scalp.
Economic progressives are now clamoring for a Federal Reserve chair more progressive than Larry Summers. But they should’ve thought of that last year and, for instance, challenged incumbent Delaware Senator Tom Carper, who consistently votes with Republicans on banking and finance issues. They could have attempted to nationalize the race as conservative interests groups such as the Club for Growth did for Lee, Mourdock, Cruz, and others. They could have tried to capitalize on the residual energy of the Occupy movement to energize liberals angry at the Clinton-ushered takeover of the Democratic Party by Wall Street which has proven relatively durable even in the wake of the finance-induced Great Collapse.
There are many reasons Carper should have been a progressive target -- from the obvious policy ones (Carper is the Senate Democrat who votes furthest to the right of his constituency) to logistical (a tiny state where grassroots activism can trump money) and media (close to the Beltway and so easily covered) advantages. And again, winning isn’t necessary: Primary challenges to incumbents can help change policy before the fact -- despite ultimately losing, Netroots darling Bill Halter's Arkansas primary in 2010 made Senator Blanche Lincoln stronger on Dodd-Frank.*
And if progressives had found a credible candidate, it likely would not have been a fool’s errand -- Elizabeth Warren demonstrated the national grassroots thirst for a populist Democrat last cycle, and locally, a political nobody fresh out of law school named Bryan Townsend ran a longshot primary in Delaware last year and upset the entrenched state Senate president, suggesting at least some Delaware Democrats are willing to buck party orthodoxy.
Both parties are largely beholden to Wall Street because while grassroots conservatives have the guts and organizational wherewithal to seriously challenge incumbents (and establishment-anointed candidates) in primaries, progressives generally don't. That helps explain why Democratic populism is nearly extinct, and it presages a future fight for the soul of the party between an Elizabeth Warren faction and a Cory Booker faction -- a fight that a Hillary Clinton candidacy may suppress for one more cycle but which may be inevitable.
But the fact that no one even mentioned a primary against the little-known Carper last cycle highlights the populist left’s lack of organizational heft and strategic thinking. It may well have failed, but it could have been a critical first step in translating the Occupy movement's initial burst of energy into lasting change – and ultimately, might have led the way for a Tea Party-like transformation of the Democratic party into one that is willing to challenge its moneyed backers.
Instead, progressive inaction paved the way for a likely Summers appointment.
* This sentence has been updated for clarity.