TEA Party at a Crossroads

Member Group : Salena Zito

Dispirited by congressional wrangling over the debt ceiling in 2011, Tea Party members’ passions began to wane. Then other forces took hold to intensify the conservative movement’s struggle to remain relevant, says Sen. Jim DeMint.

"They were discouraged by the performance of the Republicans (in budget talks) and they were intimidated by the Occupy Wall Street protest tactics, which gave rallies a bad name," DeMint, 61, a South Carolina Republican, told the Tribune-Review.

DeMint, in office since 2005, will resign in January to become president of The Heritage Foundation.

One of the Senate’s most conservative members, he helped ignite the Tea Party movement. Now, DeMint said, he’s not sure whether it will continue in its present form, become part of the Republican Party or attempt to become a third political party.

"They don’t necessarily want to be Republicans," DeMint said. "If Republicans want to embrace the ideas of constitutional government and balanced budget, then they are fine with Republicans carrying the message and they will get behind them.

"But I don’t think that most Tea Party people just want to get merged with the Republican Party. The jury is still out if … you are going to see the emergence of a third party with a lot of libertarian themes."

Sam DeMarco, 54, of North Fayette, chairman of Western Pennsylvania Veterans and Patriots United, a Tea Party organization with 500 members, said he thinks the movement has reached a crossroads.

"We originally made the decision to not form a third party and stick with the Republicans because we understood that would almost guarantee that (Democratic candidates) would win," he said. "However, as the fiscal cliff negotiations continue and Washington Republicans are beginning to cave, that may become an option."

The Tea Party hasn’t successfully transitioned from an outside pressure group to an inside influence group, said Lara Brown, a Villanova University political scientist.

"In Congress, they attempted this during the debt ceiling debate in the summer of 2011, but because of their uncompromising stance, the deal that eventually got done was not only not enough to satisfy their constituents but it was also so politically messy that the government’s credit rating was downgraded," she said.

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced an agreement on July 31, and Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 on Aug. 2. Days later, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the government’s credit rating. In September, the protest movement that came to be known as Occupy Wall Street established itself in New York City’s financial district and within months spread to other cities.

From the movement’s inception in January 2009, Washington politicos thought that the Tea Party could have a devastating effect on the 2012 election. They could not have been more wrong.

The Tea Party’s force showed potential in the 2009 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, when Republicans Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell won in states that Obama won comfortably the year before. Tea Party-backed candidates then secured big wins in 2010 in the House, state legislatures and gubernatorial races. Yet by this year’s election cycle, the movement had lost its mojo.

That’s not surprising, Brown said.

"This is what happens to single-issue movements or third-party candidates," Brown said. "They typically last one or two cycles, and then they disappear."
Down, but not out

Evidence of the Tea Party’s waning passion is no more apparent than in the case of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. The Republican rode in on the initial wave of Tea Party movement in a January 2010 special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s seat, but he lost this year to Democrat and consumer darling Elizabeth Warren.

Only four of 16 Senate candidates backed by Tea Party organizations won in November.

Tea Party-backed House candidates fared better — among them, Republican Keith Rothfus of Sewickley, who upset Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., founder of the Tea Party Caucus, who narrowly won re-election. But her Florida counterpart, Rep. Allen West, conceded a messy race to Democrat Patrick Murphy.

"It’s clear the Tea Party still has salience in American politics, or at least in the Republican Party," said Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. "It might be a faction — an unruly faction that’s difficult to control — but it’s still a faction at this point."

After helping to elect House members and state government representatives in 2011, many Tea Party groups lost an enemy. Their candidates had replaced the lawmakers who led to the movement’s formation, by enacting programs such as the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program to bail out banks, the $860 billion American Recovery Act to stimulate the economy, the GM restructuring plan and the health care bill.

Early in the 2012 GOP presidential primary, when 10 candidates jockeyed for position, the Tea Party became distracted from its fiscal goal, Villanova’s Brown said. That caused its supporters to splinter and "they lost their power in all but the most conservative states" such as Texas, she said.

To Brown, it seems doubtful the movement can regroup under the Tea Party brand to influence elections.

"While fiscal conservatives and libertarians may again come together to protest the government’s continued deficit spending and enormous debt," she said, "my guess is that they would need to call themselves something else and begin anew the process of organizing."

Salena Zito
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter