Mitt Romney advisor Ed Gillespie, speaking to reporters after the second… (Mary Altaffer, Associated…)
Mitt Romney's loss to President Obama on Tuesday unleashed predictable angst and debate in a Republican Party that must now decide how to attract a more diverse electorate.
But for conservatives who identify with the tea party, one emotion seemed to dominate all others: a white-hot anger at the Republican establishment. Tea party supporters are angry at the GOP for embracing as its presidential nominee a "moderate" like Romney. For undermining "true conservative" candidates. And for "choosing to ignore" the conservative agenda.
Wednesday, the political direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie gathered a group of disenchanted conservatives for a news conference in Washington. Calling Romney's loss "the death rattle" of the GOP, Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, said, "The battle to take over the Republican Party begins today."
He called upon the Republican leadership to resign for its part in the "epic election failure of 2012." That includes Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who has not announced whether he will run for the post again, House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
But he didn't stop there.
"In any logical universe," Viguerie said, "establishment Republican consultants such as Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie and Romney campaign senior advisors Stuart Stevens and Neil Newhouse would never be hired to run or consult on a national campaign again and no one would give a dime to their ineffective 'super PACs.'"
Rove is a pioneer in the formation of the outside groups that raised more than $1 billion for the election. Gillespie, a Romney strategist, worked with Rove in the George W. Bush White House. Newhouse is the Romney pollster who famously said last summer, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers."
Viguerie's attack didn't sit well with many mainline Republicans, who blamed conservative "purists" and the tea party wing of the party for squandering the GOP's chance to regain control of the Senate.
Friday, for instance, conservative columnist Michael Barone told an audience at Hillsdale College's center in Washington that the tea party, while bringing some talented politicians to the fore, also brought some "wackos and weirdos and witches."
In a video of his comments, posted on the Daily Caller website, he singled out the GOP's losing Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana — Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock — who he said committed "unforced errors" with their remarks against abortion cases of rape. "Don't nominate dogs, OK?," he said.
Tuesday's Senate results were like the replay of a bad dream for many conservatives. Two years ago, when the tea party swept scores of new members into Congress, many believed that flawed tea party candidates cost Republicans an opportunity to also seize control of the Senate. Christine O'Donnell in Delaware (who denied she was a witch in a TV spot) and Sharron Angle in Nevada lost Senate races that might have been won by more moderate Republicans.
Still, most of the 55 House tea party caucus members who ran for reelection Tuesday will return to their seats, guaranteeing that the group's influence will continue to be felt in Congress. Two high-profile members were turned out of office — Allen West of Florida and Joe Walsh of Illinois. But tea party caucus founder Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota kept her job, if barely.
The widely syndicated conservative radio host Mark Levin, a hero to many in the tea party movement, could barely contain his rage at the establishment after the election results were in.
"The very people who keep nominating moderates now call us purists, the way the left calls us purists," Levin said Wednesday. "And we have to hear this crap from pseudo-conservatives and Republicans."
At Viguerie's news conference, Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the country's largest tea party groups, said conservatives had wanted a candidate like President Reagan. "What we got was a weak moderate candidate handpicked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party. The presidential loss is unequivocally on them," she said.
A day later, home in Atlanta, Martin said that the Tea Party Patriots planned to gather for their quarterly meeting next weekend in Washington to "discuss and debate and create a plan" for the 2014 midterm elections and beyond.
Boehner obliquely addressed the critiques Friday at his regular news conference. He said he was proud that Republicans were able to hold on to a majority of House seats, though he added, "It's clear that as a political party, we've got some work to do."
Some tea party activists, stunned by their losses, were not sure how to move forward.
Cincinnati Tea Party President George Brunemann, an engineer, was still reeling Thursday from an election night that also saw Ohio's Republican U.S. Senate candidate, Josh Mandel, lose to Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown.
"I have been trying to come to terms with what the heck is going on," Brunemann said. "The easy two-word answer for what happened Tuesday is: America died."
But he also said there was another casualty: "The words 'tea party' are dead. No doubt about that."
Although the small-government, fiscal-responsibility principles of the tea party will never go out of style, he said, critics of the movement had been successful in tarnishing it as racist.
And the movement got no support from the top during the campaign, he said.
"You never heard a single utterance of the words 'tea party' from Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan," Brunemann said. "I believe the downfall of the Republicans this time was that they never gave credit to the tea party."