The tea party reiterated its status as a political force to be reckoned with in Tuesday’s rally at the state Capitol, but so what? The influence of the Republican Party’s conservative wing was never really disputed in Kentucky, which voted against Barack Obama in 2008 and is expected to do the same this November.
The bigger issue is whether the Romney/Ryan presidential ticket can win enough support coast to coast to defeat Obama and reverse his initiatives, notably the Affordable Care Act. To make that happen, the party needs not only to win the White House but to recover control of the U.S. Senate. So Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a more conventional Republican, stood with Sen. Rand Paul on the Capitol steps, declaring their joint determination to chase the Democrats out of Congress. McConnell promised, “if I’m setting the agenda next January instead of Harry Reid, the repeal of Obamacare will be Job 1.”
Trouble is, things aren’t necessarily going as McConnell and Paul might hope. Republicans need every vote they can scrounge up to recapture the Senate and they had high hopes that Rep. Todd Akin could unseat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. The dream is in serious jeopardy following Akin’s faux pas over abortion – exactly the kind of social conservatism topic Mitt Romney has downplayed in his focus on the economic issues that draw more consensus among party members.
Akin, who believes abortion should be illegal, got in trouble for mentioning he understood science to say the female anatomy has an innate ability to prevent pregnancy following “legitimate” rape. Aside from the biological error in his initial assumption, the Republican lawmaker now wishes he had chosen different terms to describe rape. What he probably meant to say was that not every woman who cries rape is necessarily the victim of a criminal assault. In some cases, she may merely have had second thoughts in the aftermath of consensual sex.
But never mind, as soon as the words departed his lips, critics pounced on them, pigeonholing Akin as just another Republican Neanderthal who lacks understanding of female sensitivities. He apologized, to no avail. Romney and other Republicans called on the hapless candidate to step aside for the greater good of the party in its continuing effort to regain control of the Senate.
But Akin wouldn’t go that far. Even without support from the party establishment, he forged ahead, turning to Christian evangelicals and independent Republicans for sympathy. Such groups are famously passionate about their causes, but likely don’t wield the same power they once did in a society that’s grown more tolerant of formerly forbidden behavior – like same-sex marriage, which lots of social conservatives vociferously oppose while many fiscal conservatives would rather change the subject.
This is a formidable challenge for the party of Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. While they want the votes of social conservatives – or any others who find it in their hearts to back Republican candidates – their strategy is to portray the president as a leader who inherited an economic mess and has failed, thus far, to clean it up.
Observers witnessed two disparate politicians united in purpose at Tuesday’s rally in Frankfort. Whether that same solidarity can be achieved nationwide is a question Republicans will soon have to answer.