THE political class first sat up and paid real attention to the “tea-party” movement two years ago, when its acolytes in Utah ended the career of Bob Bennett, a venerable Republican senator, by denying him the party’s nomination for his re-election bid. If Bob Bennett is not conservative enough, incredulous congressmen asked, who on earth is? One person assumed to have dwelt long and hard on that question is the other, even more venerable Republican senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch, who has been in office since 1977.
On April 21st Mr Hatch survived the test that undid Mr Bennett: he won a ballot for the nomination at the state’s Republican convention. Thanks to the local party’s complicated electoral procedures, he still has to face a tea-party-backed challenger in a primary, to be held in June. It is slightly awkward to be running for a seventh term considering that during his first campaign he denounced his opponent’s three terms as too many. But he has reason to be confident: he came within a whisker of avoiding the primary, falling just 32 votes short of the 60% threshold required to secure the nomination at the convention. Assuming that the primary electorate is less conservative than the diehard lot who attend the convention, and given that Mr Hatch has the edge in fund-raising, he should prevail in the primary too. And what with Utah’s strongly Republican slant, winning the primary more or less guarantees re-election in November.
This muddled outcome puts America’s pundits in a quandary. Had Mr Hatch gone down to defeat, the tea party would have been declared alive and well; had Mr Hatch sailed to victory, it would have been declared moribund. Clearly, it is not as potent and unpredictable a force as it was in 2010. Yet Mr Hatch, already towards the tanniny end of the Republican spectrum, has survived thus far by significantly strengthening the brew he serves his constituents. His lifetime rating from the Club for Growth, a conservative pressure group, is currently 78%; but in 2010 and 2011 he scored 97% and 99% respectively.
Mr Hatch is not the only Republican grandee to have shifted nimbly rightward. Dick Lugar, a Republican senator from Indiana who is equally venerable (he and Mr Hatch joined the Senate on the same day) and even more embattled, is breathing an unaccustomed amount of fire these days. Even Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican senator from Maine who recently declared herself so disgusted with the polarisation of Congress that she is not running for re-election this year, has been inching to the right since 2010.
That does not mean, however, that the tea party is winning the war even if it has lost a few battles. For one thing, even in the giddy days of 2010, the general electorate deemed several of its candidates beyond the pale. And Mr Hatch, for all his conservative bona fides (he has introduced bills in the Senate to amend the constitution to require balanced budgets four times over the years), worked happily with no less a leftie than Edward Kennedy to bring in children’s health insurance and the Americans with Disabilities Act. He voted, too, for TARP, a bill called for by George W. Bush that bailed out banks when the entire financial system seemed on the verge of collapse—as 90 other Republicans did. In short, he is willing to embrace the odd political compromise, which is exactly what the tea party holds against him.