Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's (TX) speech on the floor of the Senate was the culmination of a several-month campaign to convince his congressional colleagues to vote against any appropriations bill that does not defund Obamacare, which gained the support of a host of right-wing talk radio figures such as Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Erick Erickson, and Rush Limbaugh.
After Cruz spent 21 hours pleading for Republicans and Democrats to vote against cloture, the motion passed unanimously with the acquiescence of Cruz himself.
Several years ago, it was expected these talkers would have cowed the Republican Conference to their whim. Today, Sean Hannity is supportive of Cruz but other elements of the conservative movement remain divided. Fox News contributor Karl Rove has used his media platform to make arguments for avoiding this fight, while fellow contributor Sarah Palin has attacked Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, demanding he “release the GOP names encouraging you to trash [Ted Cruz.]”
Since Rush Limbaugh's radio program went into syndication in August of 1988, talk radio has held unprecedented power over the GOP, wreaking vengeance on those who defied it. Erick Erickson recently cited conservative anger at George H.W. Bush for violating his “no new taxes” pledge as the reason for his defeat in 1992.
The age of talk radio has not been kind to the Republican Party's national candidates who have failed to capture a plurality of the popular vote in five of seven elections since Limbaugh's program went national. (In fact, one of those elections was Bush's 1988 victory, which, in reality, occurred before his influence reached its apex.)
Conservative talk radio is good for its hosts' bottom lines because it captures the loyalty, dedication, and financial muscle of a large niche audience. This can amount to millions of listeners, hundreds of millions of dollars, but still represents a limited quantity of voters -- far less than the 50 percent it takes to win an election.
Politicians like Cruz recognize the power of that niche in building his brand within the Republican Party.
Cruz also recognizes the financial benefit long known by the talk radio hosts raising millions of dollars off of a stunt that threatens to do billions of dollars in damage to the economy. It's important to recognize, however, that even the majority of Republicans oppose Cruz's tactic.
Instead of rallying in support or cowering in fear, Cruz's GOP colleagues in the Senate are bucking the conservative radio base for fear of being replaced in the primaries.
In addition to failing to unite behind Cruz's campaign, Fox recently announced its decision to downgrade the position of its talk radio star Hannity from his prime location at 9 p.m. to the less desirable 10 p.m. timeslot. This moves makes way for Megyn Kelly who, while maintaining the network's conservative ethos, delivers a far different product than her conservative counterparts.
It is perhaps heartening that after nearly 25 years of right-wing talking heads dragging the Republican Party away from a place where it can constructively engage with its counterparts, the Senate Republican Conference has briefly broken free of talk radio's grip.
It remains to be seen if this a long-term trend or a short-term realignment. But for once, the calculation that what is good for Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and now Ted Cruz is often to the detriment of the broader Republican Party has been heeded at this time by its leaders in the United States Senate.