Citing a desire to avoid a “multimillion-dollar bloodbath,” Chaffetz broke widely held expectations with his decision not to pursue Hatch. While it’s true that the 77-year-old entrenched Senator has spent the better part of a year scrambling right — he seemed to take note of Bennett’s downfall — and filling a formidable campaign warchest, the nominating convention would have given Chaffetz a decent shot at taking down his opponent without ever facing voters. Besides, being outspent would hardly be novel to Chaffetz, who was up against a six-to-one fundraising disadvantage in ’08, and Tea Party types have rarely shied away from fighting above their weight class. Chaffetz’s decision to pass on a Senate run may be a leading indicator that the Tea Party’s most powerful tool isn’t as sharp as it once was.
The Tea Party’s potency, in essence, derives from primary threats. 2010 was the year of the Tea Party not because of health reform protests or Nancy Pelosi’s ouster from the Speakership, but because Republicans like Bennett in Utah, Charlie Crist in Florida, Mike Castle in Delaware and so on paid an electoral price for their perceived apostasies. Though Chaffetz is just one candidate (and Hatch could still face defeat without him in the race), it’s beginning to look as if the Tea Partyers are not the enforcers they once were. Of the eight GOP Senators facing re-election in 2012, six were the subject of Tea Party challenge whispers after last year’s coup: Utah’s Hatch, Maine Rockefeller Republican Olympia Snowe, Massachusetts’ Scott Brown, Dick Lugar in Indiana, and, somewhat marginally, Tennessee’s Bob Corker and Mississippi’s Roger Wicker. With the most credible challenger out of the way in Utah, Hatch is in good shape; Snowe has attracted several fringe challengers, but they look, at this point, poised to fade; nothing has materialized against Brown yet; the same can be said of Corker and Wicker; and while Lugar has found himself in a legitimate knife fight with Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, there’s a possibility that a three-way race might benefit the incumbent.