Sean Duffy and Chip Cravaack are the emblematic politicians of the 2010 congressional elections: tea party-backed Republicans who won in heavily Democratic districts and succeeded two of the most powerful figures in the House.
Duffy, a sports commentator and former district attorney, won the Wisconsin seat held for 40 years by the Democrat David Obey, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, who retired. Cravaack, a Navy veteran and commercial-airline pilot, narrowly defeated House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, the longest-serving House member from Minnesota.
These upsets reflected the energy of the tea party in 2010. Duffy’s campaign was fueled by his opposition to President Obama’s stimulus package, which Obey helped craft; Cravaack was powered by his rejection of Obama’s healthcare proposal, which Oberstar strongly backed.
While neither was an official tea-party member, both rode the wave. Duffy praised the movement and the right-wing talk- show host Glenn Beck. Tea-party rallies in Oberstar’s sprawling northern Minnesota district sparked Cravaack’s campaign.
Both now face tough reelections and have tempered their tone, illustrating the political realities facing a number of the 84 newcomers to the House in the Republican tide two years ago. Duffy has said he isn’t a tea-party member; he occasionally bucks his party, for example by voting to continue federal funding for public broadcasting. When asked if he’d cut his own $174,000 salary — a favorite tea-party target — the father of six said he would do so only if all government employees cut theirs, too, saying he was “struggling” to get by.
Cravaack, in a recent interview with the Associated Press, depicted himself as a centrist. He has cast a number of pro-labor union votes in line with his working-class district. The conservative Club for Growth has rated him the least conservative of the four Republican House members from Minnesota.
Neither congressman was willing to be interviewed.
The freshman Republicans, many of whom were embraced by tea-party activists, are a force. While they don’t form a monolithic bloc, they have pushed their party and the House to the right. It’s very probable that Speaker John Boehner would have finalized a spending-cut and tax-increase debt deal with Obama last summer if he hadn’t felt the heat from this group.
They consistently pressured the leadership and the spending committees to pare back outlays. The House has voted 33 times to repeal Obama’s healthcare law, a signature tea-party issue in 2010.
Yet substantive changes have been minimal. The healthcare overhaul remains, as does the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory measure. The vast reduction in the size of government, promised in scores of campaigns two years ago, hasn’t materialized.
Almost all these freshmen continue to stress conservative issues in the House and in seeking reelection. More than a few from safe districts are singing the same tune as last time. A few, who are in serious danger of losing, such as Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle from Syracuse, N.Y., continue to embrace the tea party.
Others are moving away. Another Republican congresswoman from New York, Nan Hayworth, who only a year ago said she “belonged to a tea- party group,” more recently has bragged about voting with Democrats and Obama: “I’m one of the members of the House majority, who has voted most frequently — actually about a third of the time I voted the way President Obama has also supported voting.”