The recent Todd "legitimate rape" Akin debacle is just another episode in the continuing saga of the Tea Party getting its candidates nominations for important races, only to have them embarrass the Republican Party. In 2010 there was Sharon "pay for health care with a chicken" Angle, Christine "I am not a witch" McDonnell, and Carl Paladino (who was so ridiculous that I can't use a singe phrase to define him.) This year we have Akin and Ted "the UN wants your golf course" Cruz with Senate nominations, and Rick "man on dog" Santorum took second place in the presidential primaries. Many of the Tea Party candidates who did win, like Florida governor Rick Scott and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, have alienated their constituencies with their radical conservative policies.
As much as this stuff hurts the Republican brand, there's no going back with their pact with the Tea Party. The party establishment needs the support of enthusiastic foot soldiers, and in return must tolerate their extremity and nuttiness. The Republicans might lose a couple of races they should have won due to the likes of Akin, but they will have die-hard conservatives in other positions that may have been held by moderate Republicans. In a narrowly divided electorate such as ours, it is smart strategy to abandon appeals to the middle in favor of turning out one's base to the polls, especially if you can use the law to limit the turnout of your opponents.
Without the Tea Party, the Republicans would be in some seriously deep shit right now. The Bush administration was such a complete catastrophe that even Republicans could not deny it. After the election of 2008, the Democrats controlled the House and Senate by wide margins, and put the first real liberal since LBJ into the White House by a comfortable margin. The old party leadership looked completely lost and rudderless. Instead of trying to work within this situation, conservatives obstructed every Democratic initiative that they could and whipped their masses into a frenzy. Aided by a cruddy economy and a young president who had not yet learned how to fight fire with fire, they stormed back into power and managed to pass extreme measures at the state level that they could not have dreamed of accomplishing even in the Bush years.
So far the alliance with the Tea Party has not sunk the GOP because most independent voters still view it as a center-right party and legitimate alternative. In 2010 many voters in the middle went to the polls and told themselves "the economy's still bad, let's see if the Republicans can do better." The Tea Party-GOP pact might ultimately destroy the Republicans if voters no longer see the party as a center-right alternative, but a faction of crazed wingnut wackos who hate homosexuals, want to control women, impose evangelical Christianity, and rip the social safety net to shreds in the process of redistributing money upwards to the wealthy. A look at the Republican Party platform would go a long way to confirm this view, and it would behoove Democrats to point that out.
Like all such gambling strategies, the GOP's embrace of the Tea Party will lead to either political glory or political disaster. In the glorious scenario, the conservative base will come out to vote in droves and will squeak Romney into the White House while securing both houses of Congress and several state houses. The House and Senate will be full of conservative ideologues willing to push the right-wing agenda forward at all costs. On the flip side, the extremity of the Tea Party could mean a further hemhorraging of the votes of women, people of color, and independents to the point where the Republicans only hold power in what they call "Real America." I can only hope that the latter scenario comes about.