The development, revealed earlier this week, has prompted further turmoil in a movement already searching for a new path in the wake of last month’s elections. It has also drawn attention to a larger identity crisis facing the tea party: how to remain an outsider movement while wielding real power inside Washington.
The Nov. 6 elections dealt a heavy blow to the grass-roots conservative movement, handing its No. 1 foe, President Obama, a decisive victory and delivering defeats to most tea-party-branded House and Senate candidates. Obama is now widely seen as having the upper hand in the budget fight with Congress, in which Republicans are toying with a compromise that was unthinkable six months ago.
“It’s harder,” said Dianne Belsom, an activist with the Laurens County Tea Party in South Carolina. “We have someone in the White House whose policies, what he’s promoting, are everything that we’re against. It’s definitely an uphill battle, but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you quit and go away. You just keep doing it.”
The moment presents a stark contrast to Obama’s first election victory in 2008, which sparked a groundswell of conservatives coming together to protest stimulus spending, bank and auto bailouts, and the health-care overhaul. The groups fueled a Republican sweep of congressional elections in 2010 and had outsize influence in the 2012 GOP presidential primary race, which featured tea-party-friendly contenders such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and businessman Herman Cain.
It all ended badly last month, when many tea party candidates lost along with Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, whom many of them opposed. The question now is how the movement can regroup.
“I’m actually very encouraged by the last four years despite, obviously, the 2012 election results,” said Jamie Radtke, a tea party activist in Virginia who lost a Senate primary battle against Republican George Allen. “Everyone wants to say that this last election reflects that the tea party is dead, but I think that’s pretty hysterical.”
How organizations such as FreedomWorks, one of the leading national groups to take credit for training, organizing and funding the tea party, will factor into the movement’s path forward remains unclear.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Armey will be paid $8 million in exchange for resigning as chairman of FreedomWorks, although one senior official said he knew of no such arrangement. The payout was arranged directly with a member of the group’s board, Richard J. Stephenson, the AP said. Stephenson, founder of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Armey, whose departure was first reported by Mother Jones magazine, had for years faced questions about how he could credibly lead an organization intent on taking over the Republican Party from the outside and steering it toward a more anti-regulation, low-tax agenda. Recently, those questions became an all-out battle inside FreedomWorks over the direction of the organization, with Armey wanting to work alongside GOP leaders and others abhorring that idea, according to those familiar with the fight.
Just hours after news of Armey’s departure broke, the winning direction was clear: FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe issued the group’s sharpest attack to date on House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), whom he accused of representing “the failed political establishment” and “purging House committees of fiscal conservatives.”
Kibbe did not respond to requests for comment. Armey also did not respond to messages.
“Our membership continues to want us to be independent from government leadership,” said Adam Brandon, a senior vice president of FreedomWorks who declined to speak specifically about Armey’s departure but agreed to describe the group’s general direction. “They support the theory that we want to do a hostile takeover, continue to work with people elected on the tea party brand and push bold reforms.”
It’s clear that the movement continues to exert strong pressure on Congress. Grover Norquist, the influential leader of the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform, warned this week of a tea party backlash if House Republicans capitulate to Obama during “fiscal cliff” negotiations. And on Tuesday, a bloc of Senate conservatives blocked ratification of an international treaty intended to protect the rights of people with disabilities because of conservative claims that it would undermine U.S. sovereignty.
“We’re still here, we’re still fighting for the same principles,” said Belsom, the South Carolina activist. “The principles we’re fighting for, we’re going to keep fighting for them no matter what, because it’s the right thing to do.”