The big news in this election cycle is the rise of the Tea Party. Fair enough. But since every action causes a reaction, passing under the radar is an accompanying development that could have even more far-reaching consequences — the rise of an emboldened third force in our politics. This could even lead to the emergence of a new independent party that could alter the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, not to mention the future course of our history.
Yes, the Tea Partiers have already ousted GOP incumbents in half a dozen states. But at least some of the losers in those states are not going quietly into the night. In Florida and Alaska, the moderate GOP incumbents who were beaten in the primaries by more conservative Republican candidates are staging independent candidacies in the fall. They follow in the footsteps of Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee, a former liberal Republican who is running as an independent for governor.
Whether successful or not, these third-way independents may well be the harbinger of a new political age. On the Democratic side, Connecticut's Joe Lieberman bolted his party several years ago when he lost the primary to businessman Ned Lamont but went on to win re-election. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has been all over the map — moving from Democrat to Republican in 2001 and switching again, to independent, in 2007.
Why is this significant? Over the next few years, Democratic and GOP moderates are likely to feel even more isolated within their parties. The diminished rank of Democrats in Congress that arrives in January will be more liberal than its predecessors, since those most likely to lose in November are the moderates who got themselves elected in swing districts.
Meanwhile, the confident Tea Partiers will be looking to build on their assumed 2010 success by targeting every GOP moderate in sight. Highest on the list will be Maine's Olympia Snowe — admired by many for her, well, independence, but despised by the GOP right for much the same reason.
So far, politicos in Maine don't think it's much of a possibility, citing her strong personal ties to voters of many political stripes, including not a few Tea Partiers. The truth could well be otherwise. What Snowe says or does now is irrelevant — for the time being, she has to maintain her ties to the GOP establishment. But post-November, when the handwriting on the wall becomes increasingly visible, Snowe's only viable option will likely be to go the independent route.
Other Tea Party targets are likely to include Republican senator Orrin Hatch of Utah — who may face a challenge from Congressman Jason Chaffetz, Tennessee senator Bob Corker, Indiana senator Richard Lugar, and even Massachusetts's Scott Brown, whom Sarah Palin has already publicly dissed. As for Brown, it may seem unlikely that the Tea Partiers could dethrone the GOP hero of 2009. But the Republican Party is so small in Massachusetts that all it might take is a well-organized effort to topple him too, just as Mike Castle was unexpectedly defeated in Delaware this past month.