Party Polarization: Is the Tea Party Changing the GOP?

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Political parties see shifts on a continuum; year to year, there are changes in the conservative and liberal tendencies, dependent on the political atmosphere. However, the Republican party looks to actually be swinging further right in a significant way in recent years, such that it may be having a visible effect in Congress. Keith Poole spoke with NPR on a study he did at the University of Georgia with a fellow researcher, Howard Rosenthal, from New York University.

Over decades, the two have worked to record the changes and extremes of political stances between the party, and Poole reported that the stats don’t lie: Republicans are indeed becoming more conservative. “The short version would be since the late 1970s, starting with the 1976 election in the House, the Republican caucus has steadily moved to the right ever since. It’s been a little more uneven in the Senate. The Senate caucuses have also moved to the right. Republicans are now furthest to the right that they’ve been in 100 years,” said Poole.

Others would argue that the same can be said of Democrats. For example, Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institution, said that since she’s been watching, both parties have polarized. “The Democratic Party has been pulled to the left and the Republican Party has been pulled to the right. Part of that is redistricting,” argued Bowman, in an interview with NPR. Still, while Poole admits that to be the case, he believes his study shows more of a change in Republicans than in Democrats. “It is true that the Republicans have moved further to the right than the Democrats have moved to the left. That’s absolutely true,” he said. Still, he doesn’t excuse leadership in either party for their inability to enact change.

Leadership is exactly the problem, at least according to some analysts, who say Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is a major factor in the conservative leaning of the GOP as of late. “Cruz scared the daylights out of center and center-right conservatives to the extent that they do not feel comfortable enough to run on their true positions and feel compelled to cater to the most conservative elements of the Texas Republican primary electorate,” Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, told Reuters.

This influence could be a result of his ability to draw in media attention, combined with the fact that his funding is independent, meaning he is less accountable to other members of the Republican party. He was both blamed and credited — depending who you asked — with being the strategic leader behind spending bill attack on Obamacare, and at times, has rubbed even his fellow Republicans — such as John Boehner (R-Ohio) — the wrong way.

It could also be a change that’s coming on with the wave of the Tea Party’s rise, a semi-separate entity that sometimes falls into the GOP category. Who and what Cruz chooses to support has begun to have an impact, especially as he’s come to be considered the face of the far right by many. For example, Reuters suggests that a decision to endorse Senator John Cornyn (R-Tex.) could lead to him getting flack from conservatives, whereas endorsement of Konni Burton could be a safer bet in terms of pleasing his supporters. Still, it could also lead to damage to his party.

A split in Republican voters could make it harder to win elections, and Reuters reports that some Democrats are actually hoping he’ll have some say in the upcoming elections — a conservative take on immigration reform would alienate a number of voters in the Hispanic population, which is steadily growing.

“The state [Texas] will not turn the blue of the Democrats in this election cycle,” said Sherri Greenberg, the director of the Center for Politics and Governance at LBJ School of Public Affairs, to Reuters. “But it is possible that if the Republican party turns so far to the right with particular stance on immigration that it may hasten the day when that change comes,” she said. Ultimately, whether it’s the Tea Party as a whole, Cruz specifically, or a longer and more in depth trend, public opinion for both parties is demanding cooperation — but 2014 could prove a tough year for all involved.

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