Assessing the Tea Party Movement

Washington Matters

Assessing the Tea Party Movement

The disparate groups known collectively as the Tea Party are the wild cards come November.

Tea Party activists supported Scott Brown and claimed some credit for his stunning upset win in the special Senate election in Massachusetts earlier this year. But they also supported Debra Medina in her bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in Texas yesterday, and she finished a very distant third, with less than 20% of the vote.

And therein lies the rub. Few can even define the Tea Party, let alone figure out what its role will be come November.

For now, only one thing is clear. Millions of Americans are fed up with Washington. They’ve concluded that the federal government is dysfunctional, and they want big change. Many of them are finding a voice in the Tea Party movement, which gives it huge potential. But much depends on whether leaders emerge who can harness the power and whether GOP leaders can make it work for them.

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The Tea Party’s biggest impact will come this spring, in a host of Republican primaries that feature battles between conservatives and big-tent moderates. Even in Texas, where its candidate lost, the record is mixed. Perry embraced the Tea Party and had plenty of support from its members (Medina was a weak candidate to start with), and Tea Party candidates further down the ballot ran surprisingly well.


The Tea Parties -- and there are many -- will clearly make a difference in some states, but their impact in November will depend on how good they are at raising money, putting together organizations and help Republican candidates get supporters to the polls.

At this point, the movement is still fractious and a bit nebulous, which is typical of most national movements in the beginning. Tea Party members are loosely united by opposition to government intrusions into everyday life, but that means different things to different people. Their views largely track Republican philosophy, with a couple of big exceptions: The war on terrorism, which includes unprecedented intrusions that have GOP support, is perhaps the biggest one.

The size of the movement is unclear, but it’s estimated at a few million. There are 1200 national chapters, and they recently hosted their first national conference. Gradually, month by month, the Tea Partyers are getting more organized and more disciplined. They’re starting to raise money, size up and grade candidates in key primaries, and they will field some of their own to run as independents -- possibly as spoilers, possibly as winners. They will also be spending money through Tea Party political action committees managed in different parts of the country. The movement’s social media system and Web sites are more professional, too, less haphazard than last year.

Look for many centrist and conservative-leaning lawmakers to actively seek Tea Party support, mentioning it in campaign flyers and ads. They’ll distance themselves from the more radical elements of the movement.


There’s even talk of establishing a Tea Party caucus in the House and Senate comprising generally conservative lawmakers who want Tea Party support and back the platform of small, limited federal government, respect for states’ rights, lower taxes and lower spending.

The Tea Party is unlikely to ever be an official national party. There’s disagreement in the movement about whether to be an officially registered party. That’s not the goal of Tea Party leaders, who that such a step would only help majority party Democrats by splitting conservatives. Even without being a registered party, though, it will remain an important political movement and venue for often angry and vocal supporters. Many are typically white, rural, Republican or conservative-leaning independents, including many from the South.

Three new Tea Party political action committees have just been launched, and the original Tea Party PAC is expanding after being revamped with the help of professional fund-raisers. More PACs are expected. So-called Tea PACs will be used to make donations to favored candidates and fund TEA Party-sponsored candidate training sessions as well as Tea Party-backed ad campaigns. Combined, Tea Party PACs are expected to spend $9 million by the end of the election year and perhaps more in the 2012 elections after they are better known and marketed.

There are several states where the Tea Party will have a potentially large impact:


Florida. In this big base for Tea Party supporters, they’re responsible for lifting the U.S. Senate primary election prospects of conservative Marco Rubio (R), a favorite of the right, over far-better-known Governor Charlie Crist (R), who is often portrayed as a moderate. The primary is Aug. 8. A brutal primary fight, as this one is shaping up to be, could split Republicans and give Democrats an edge in November.

Kentucky. The Tea Party has been vital in boosting Republican Rand Paul, a physician and son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), the long-shot GOP presidential candidate. The younger Paul is running roughly even with the state GOP establishment pick, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, for the party nomination. The primary is May 18. Several Tea Party campaigns are being organized for the two House candidates as well as local races.

Nevada. Tea Partyers could unwittingly play the role of spoiler. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) is struggling to win reelection this year. Republicans have yet to settle on a candidate, and polling suggests Reid would win if the contest including a Tea Party candidate who would siphon votes from the GOP contender. Three Tea Party activists are strongly considering running as third-party candidates.

In Arizona, Sen. John McCain (R) has a close reelection race, thanks partly to the Tea Party. McCain is running in the Aug. 24 primary against former Rep. J.C. Hayworth, who is angling for Tea Party endorsements. He recently hired Tea Party activists to help run his campaign, for instance, and is repeatedly portraying McCain as too moderate for the state, in part to appeal to Tea Party supporters.