Could the IRS scandal reignite the tea party? Maybe.

The Internal Revenue Service's decision to single out conservative groups for extra scrutiny has brought a fresh dose of attention to the tea party, a once thriving movement that has waned in the years since the 2010 GOP wave election.

Will the fact that the agency targeted groups with "tea party" and "patriot" in their names reignite the energy of limited-government activists and groups who have warned of the perils of overreach? Republicans both in and outside the movement think it could give them a boost on several fronts.


(Douglas Graham/Roll Call Getty Images)

"I think it stands to galvanize the Tea Party and the conservative base for two reasons. First, it's not just the 'Tin Foil Tri-Corn Hat' brigade: the Federal Government really WAS out to get them," wrote Florida-based Republican strategist Rick Wilson in an e-mail. "It was egregious, illegal and patently political ... and exactly the kind of unconstitutional excess they found so motivating in the first place."

An IRS official said Friday that subjecting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status to extra attention wasn't motivated by politics. Even so, the agency has stoked anger all across the political spectrum. And tea party activists are letting loose a collective we-told-you-so.

"The irony of the IRS scandal is they drove the point the tea party was making all along -- that government can get too big," said Matt Kibbe, president of the tea party group FreedomWorks.

Practically speaking, the news is both good and bad for conservative groups, said veteran Republican strategist Ed Rogers.

"Damage to their fundraising potential, at least among major donors has already been done," Rogers said. "What donor wants to take the chance that Big Brother isn't watching?" On the other hand, Rogers added, "it could help mail and Internet fundraising," and overall, provide the political right with "a psychological boost" and an "I-told-you-so-swagger."

This much is clear: The tea party movement is not what it once was. Exit poll data from 2012 showed that 21 percent of voters said they supported the movement, only about half of the 41 percent who said the same thing in 2010. Other polls conducted more recently suggested similar lack of interest. And discord at FreedomWorks reflected poorly upon the movement's organizational abilities.

A product of frustration with the government's direction -- specifically the Obama administration's decisions on spending, taxes and the creation of the federal health-care law -- the tea party was angst channeled into activism. Now comes another moment of widespread frustration, if a smaller one, with the potential to incite a new round of advocacy.

Even as the tea party sentiment is not as widespread as it once was, the ideology underlying the movement remains a force in Congress. Look at the House, where an unruly conservative GOP conference has caused headaches for leadership. The House will hold yet another vote on a repeal of Obamacare on Thursday, an effort designed in part to satisfy freshmen lawmakers who want the vote on their record.

Tea party activists appear eager to concentrate their energy on the familiar target of the health-care law. The IRS story could fuel a new round of push-back, conservatives say, because of the embattled agency's role in the law's implementation and maintenance.

"I think that's going to make our job of repealing Obamacare, frankly, an easier lift in the long term," said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans For Prosperity, a tea party group.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted a reminder Tuesday that we can expect to hear repeated from other conservatives over and over again:

The reality is that Obamacare isn't going to be repealed with a Democratic Senate and White House. But given that even members of the president's own party have been raising concerns in recent weeks about the law's implementation, a rejuvenated tea party assault against the measure would be a political blow to Democrats. The last thing Obama needs right now is to play more defense when he is trying to get his second-term legislative agenda through Congress amid numerous distractions.

We'll find out in the coming months what changes (or doesn't) in the tea party movement as a result of the IRS revelation. But if the development proves to be a shot in the arm for a floundering effort, it will be yet another reason why the entire episode has amounted to a headache for Democrats.

Authorities launch criminal investigation into IRS scandal: The Justice Department and FBI have opened a criminal investigation into the decision at the IRS to target conservative groups for extra scrutiny. Meanwhile, an inspector general's report described the use of “inappropriate criteria" at the agency to screen groups. Obama weighed in on the report Tuesday night, calling the findings “intolerable and inexcusable." The president called on Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to “hold those responsible for these failures accountable." With new details coming out each day, the story doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon, which is bad news for the White House.

Fixbits: 

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said he recused himself from the probe involving secretly obtaining phone records of Associated Press journalists. Meanwhile, more than four dozen media organizations ripped the Justice Department in a letter.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said "laws were probably broken" in the IRS scandal involving the targeting of conservative groups.

The bipartisan Senate immigration reform plan includes an amendment that was prompted by the Boston Marathon bombing.

Anthony Weiner has hired a campaign manager.

Tom Daschle endorsed former aide Rick Weiland (D) for the Senate in South Dakota.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) signed a gay marriage bill into law.

Must-reads:

"Obama’s second term clouded by controversies" -- Dan Balz, Washington Post

"Attorney General Eric Holder back in crossfire after Justice Dept. obtains AP phone records" -- Sari Horwitz and Carol D. Leonnig, Washington Post

"Senate set for showdown over W.H. nominees" -- Manu Raju, Politico

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · May 14, 2013