Tea Party's Influence On The Wane?

[ Posted Monday, April 28th, 2014 – 17:27 UTC ]

Over the course of the next two months, the Tea Party movement may become to be seen (to mix a few metaphors) as more of a paper tiger than the tail that wags the Republican dog. To put it a little more concretely, the Tea Party may be losing some of its outsized influence over the Republican Party. It is still too early to state with any degree of certainty (since the Tea Partiers have shown themselves to be impressively resilient on previous occasions), but if Tea Party power is indeed on the wane it could signal a turning point in modern American politics.

Ever since the 2012 election (some would even say before the elections), Republicans have been at each other's throats. There has been an ongoing open civil war between the Tea Party and the Establishment Republican wing of the party. Tea Party tactics have been shown to be not only non-productive but at times downright harmful to the Republican Party as a whole (such as the government shutdown last year). The Tea Partiers, in their neverending quest for political purity, forced the Establishment Republicans currently in office to follow their lead. The Establishment Republicans went along out of fear -- the fear of "being primaried" by a more-pure Tea Party candidate. Was this fear justified, or was it a paper tiger without claws? The answer is different in different states and districts, but as the 2014 primary season truly gets underway it seems the Tea Party doesn't have a whole lot to show for their threats, at least not so far.

This overstates the case a bit, because it is always easier to mount a challenger's campaign for a House seat than it is over in the Senate. It's cheaper to run such campaigns, they usually remain almost entirely local (the national press doesn't do well following 435 simultaneous horseraces), and there are plenty of districts where a purist Tea Party candidate is indeed the "cup of tea" the voters are looking for. Meaning that analysis of how many House Tea Party candidates win their primaries (and how many of them won against sitting Republicans) is going to have to wait until the votes are counted. When the next Congress is sworn in next January, it will be very interesting to see the relative size of the "Tea Party caucus" in the House (even now it's hard to pin down, somewhere between about 50 to 70 seats). But the House as a whole is already Republican, a fact which few predict will change this election cycle.

The Senate, on the other hand, is the big prize this time around. Republicans are convinced they've got an excellent shot at picking up the six seats they need to wrest control of the chamber away from Harry Reid. Many election analysts agree with this viewpoint. Democrats are defending seats in some awfully red states, and if Republicans have a good November then they could indeed grab control of the Senate.

They have a good chance to grab control, of course, only if they nominate non-extreme candidates instead of loose cannons. In the past two election cycles, Republican voters in at least six states went with a Tea Party candidate who self-imploded at some point during the campaign. This represents a loss of exactly the same margin they needed to gain control of the Senate, in fact. Republican strategists are aware of this, of course. The Establishment Republicans know they blew what should have been winnable races in places like Delaware and Missouri, if the Republican primary voters there hadn't gone for Tea Partiers Christine O'Donnell and Todd Akin. The Establishment Republicans set out to not repeat this mistake in 2014, and if the polls can be believed it looks like they're doing a pretty good job so far in fending off extremist candidates who will go on to lose the general election. Tea Party challengers in Kansas, Kentucky, and South Carolina have for the most part fizzled, although incumbent Senator Thad Cochran in Mississippi may still be in trouble.

Of course, that's just the polls -- it is not who actually shows up on primary election day. Within the space of about two months, though, we should be able to see whether the polling is right. So far, only 2 states (Texas and Illinois) have held their primaries. In May, 11 states will go to the polls. Another 8 will vote on June 3, and then 10 more in the remainder of June. That adds up to 29 more primary elections by the end of June, which should be more than enough data to tell how big the threat of "being primaried by a Tea Partier" really is in the Republican Party these days. If all (or even most) of the Establishment Republicans win their primary races, it will indicate that the Republican primary voters themselves have decided that electability in a general election is more important to them than purity of thought in a primary election, at least for Senate races (which are much more important than most House races).

Even if the Tea Party candidates lose across the board, the Tea Party itself shouldn't be seen as defunct in any way, though. The Tea Party has always been a strange movement, almost from the very start, because it can really be thought of as two movements with the same name. There is the grassroots "I'm angry!" movement among Republican (and Libertarian) base voters, and then there is the big-bucks exploitation of the original movement. The Washington Post has an excellent article up on how these exploiters have fleeced some people into donating lots of money which does not actually pay for political activity at all, except as a sort of window-dressing ginned up to keep the bucks flowing in. Even if these charlatans are eventually shunned by the donors, however, the core grassroots movement will still likely exist in some form or another. The Tea Party movement's main objectives will remain a strong lever within the Republican Party, to put this another way, likely for decades to come. But the strength of this lever to move the rest of the party may have already hit its high point.

The Tea Party grassroots made their initial splash in the media by stealing a page from the liberals and mounting large and colorful political street theater (all the rallies with guys in Revolutionary War garb). But they soon realized that to be effective, the rallies weren't as important as gaining actual political power by electing their own into Congress. This is the trend that may be coming to an end (at least as far as the Senate is concerned). While the Tea Partiers had a lot of success in 2010 (especially in the House), they didn't do quite as well in 2012 during a presidential election. If the 2014 midterm shows even more of a wane in their influence, then a lot more sitting Republican officeholders may become bolder in staking out positions that don't meet with 100 percent Tea Party approval.

We may already be seeing this begin. John Boehner was not only snarky but downright insulting to his fellow Republicans in the House late last week, as he sneered at them for whining about having to tackle immigration reform. Rumors have been swirling since late last year that Boehner is going to bring some sort of immigration reform to the floor before the midterm elections happen -- which would enrage a lot of House Republicans.

I've written about this before, when the speculation was whether Boehner would move on immigration after most states had passed the filing deadline for the primary election (which has now happened -- only 16 states haven't hit this deadline yet). If the next few weeks of primary elections go by without major Tea Party upset wins, it may in fact strengthen Boehner's hand. If the fear of Tea Party retaliation in the primaries fades, then Boehner will have a much freer hand to move legislation onto the House floor that could pass with moderate Republican and Democratic votes. If this does come to pass -- especially if any sort of comprehensive immigration reform is included -- then it would represent a clear victory for the Establishment Republicans. It would also represent a real turning point in how much influence the Tea Party will have in the future, in both the House and in the larger Republican Party.

-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


8 Comments on “Tea Party's Influence On The Wane?”

  1. [1] 
    Mopshell wrote:

    My observations of the tea party have been much more recent and only date back as far as last September. I found them fascinating in a horror movie kind of way. Given that their number, even at the highest estimate, is less than or barely half of Congressional Republicans, I was amazed at how they were able to strong-arm the rest of them into a government shutdown. (I also remember at the time the predictions that the shutdown would register barely a blip on the midterm meter and, sadly, they were right).

    It seemed to me that the main problem establishment GOP had with tea party members in Congress was their absolute refusal to tow the line. Normally, freshmen Congresspersons, even those of a radical nature, fall into line within a month or two once they see how the system works. Not so the tea partiers and that has been a point of angst and increasing frustration for the establishment. For one thing, it held them to a boots-and-all "repeal Obamacare" position that is losing traction and likely to continue losing support between now and November.

    As for the issue of immigration reform, the problem for House Republicans isn't just the ideas of the tea party and libertarians in their midst. The establishment have big money commitments to big business that favor amnesty and they know that conflicts with their base. "Oh what to do, what to do?" Don't discuss it at all, seems to be the reply so it wouldn't surprise me if the issue is shelved until next year at the earliest. It reportedly is not on the agenda Cantor has drawn up for House business between now and November (although another Obamacare repeal vote is).

    Fox News, as the voice of the Republican Party, particularly the tea party of which Hannity is apparently a member, took a hit with the Bundy fracas and I'm wondering if there is worse to come. If the Operation American Spring march on Washington DC comes off on May 16, there's the potential for it to be bigger-than-Bundy. Tea Party Nation is supporting it as have Fox talking heads. I hope they do pull it off if only to show complacent Americans just what Republican extremists really look like en masse. It would also be interesting to see which Republican candidates support it and which fall over their feet in an attempt to distance themselves from it.

    I've also been aware of some interesting anecdotal stories in various comment pages. Two stand out for me. One was the commenter's sister, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who told a doorknocker looking for donations that he wouldn't get a cent from her until the GOP fielded sane candidates. She wrapped up her rant by telling him she was going to vote for Hillary. Another was the commenter's friend who wondered if it was the Democrats who had "planted" the tea party in the GOP because she couldn't understand why her party would be so crazy as to take them on board.

    It's hard to know from just a handful of stories how widespread this disaffection is among Republican supporters. However, if Operation American Spring goes ahead, I dare say there'll be a lot more added to the disaffected ranks.

  2. [2] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    I agree that it will be interesting to see if the Tea Party will be returning to it's position of being that one family member at Thanksgiving dinner every knows but doesn't talk about.

    Personally I predict that they will return to being that smaller "base" faction of the party now that the supremes have popped the cap on money in the election cycle.

    When I look at the "Tea Party" rise to power it also closely coincides with the monied interests co-opting the libertarian response to occupy. The high political drama that leaks forth from their mouths provided a great cover for hiding who was spending money to buy their votes.

    When I look at the downward trending not only does it coincide with the pesky morals and ethics issues that they seem to have it also matches up quite nicely with supreme court decisions that ensured all of those dollar bills had the right to speak. I think in this next election cycle we are going to see the true power of McCutcheon make itself known. If somebody is no longer supporting your corporate position all you have to do is find someone who does and run them. Whereas back when you had only Citizens United and you had to hide your money and true intentions the tea party served as a useful surrogate.

    Now that money can flow freely and will not be "corrupting" the process it is inevitable that the Tea Party will return to it's traditional role in the party. After all don't you think that the monied interests that backed most of these people have figured out that crazy is not the best way to accomplish whatever it is you need from the government?

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I'm wondering, if fewer TP'ers are successful in their primary challenges, does that mean more Republicans will win their elections than may otherwise have done so if they were Tea Party candidates?

    If so, that' not good news.

    I'd like to see Democrats in effective control of the House and Senate for the next two years, just for fun.

  4. [4] 
    TheStig wrote:

    I think of the Tea Party as an offshoot of John Birch Society philosophy, co-opted, re-branded and re-platformed for 21st century communications. Some Know Nothing nativism in the family tree as well.

  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Mopshell [1] -

    I've been watching the Tea Party since their inception. I actually supported their right to street theater in my first ever post about them:

    but I did warn of policing their own ranks. To weed out the Cliven Bundys, so to speak.

    Your estimate is generous. Even at the high end of the estimates, the House Republican caucus is only about 1/3 committed Tea Partiers.

    I think the shutdown was a move by Boehner to show that the Tea Party's tactics would not lead anywhere good. He knew that the American public would likely have long forgotten it a year later, and he also knew that if he had refused to let them take the lead, his leadership job would be in jeopardy. Since that point, tellingly, even the Tea Partiers don't make much noise about another shutdown as a possible tactic.

    Boehner said, in essence, "we'll try it your way and see what happens," and then afterwards had a lot more leverage to make them toe the establishment line ("see? we tried it your way and it didn't work!"). The real test of this is whether ANY immigration bill will be put on the floor of the House this year or not. Boehner wants to do so, but the Tea Party is not on board.

    "Operation American Spring"? Haven't heard of it. Please post a link!

    goode trickle -

    That is a very interesting point about McCutcheon, and the possibility for removing the middleman. Hadn't considered it before, but now I will keep an eye out to see if the money does indeed move.

    LizM -

    Yes, it does indeed mean better GOP candidates. Six months ago, there were five or six states where TP candidates could have upset mainstream Republicans. Now that list is shrinking, and may be down to only one (Mississippi) where a TP candidate may win a Senate nomination.

    This makes it tougher for Democrats, there's no denying it. Guess the GOP finally got tired of "I'm not a witch" candidacies.


  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    This makes it tougher for Democrats, there's no denying it.

    And, that is why I am so rooting for the Tea Party in all of its primary challenges ... :)

  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    LizM -

    Yeah, I hear you...



  8. [8] 
    Mopshell wrote:


    Your estimate is generous. Even at the high end of the estimates, the House Republican caucus is only about 1/3 committed Tea Partiers.

    My estimate was ludicrously generous (and it was kind of you to choose the word "generous" in this instance!) now I come to look at it again and compare it to the figures you posted in the blog!

    Boehner said, in essence, "we'll try it your way and see what happens"

    I can see Boehner doing that though more in exasperation than as a purely tactical move to show up the tea party. The stakes were really high - I wonder how concerned he was when it came down to the last 24 hours before default? With Eric Cantor siding with the tea party, there must have been considerable pressure on him from that quarter.

    "Operation American Spring"? Haven't heard of it. Please post a link!

    It is my pleasure to do so, good sir!

    I have several links but chose this one because it includes further links to some of the groups involved.

    This second link I chose because it shows a connection between Cliven Bundy's militia bodyguards and Operation American Spring. Scroll down to the third photo and read the sign on the back window:

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