Is the tea party still relevant?

Chris Cillizza
Reporter April 22, 2012

Is the tea party breaking up?

After playing a dominant role in a number of elections in 2010 — Christine O’Donnell, anyone? — there is growing evidence that the power (and visibility) of the movement has faded somewhat of late.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

To wit:

●Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the establishment candidate, secured the Republican presidential nomination after the tea party — and conservatives more generally — failed to unite around an alternative candidate.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) very nearly escaped a primary challenge Saturday, almost two years that home-state colleague Bob Bennett was ousted at the state party convention thanks to tea party-fueled unrest directed at him. Hatch begins the primary race against a conservative former state senator as a favorite.


Kay Herrmann sings the national anthem at the start of a tea party rally that was held to protest President Obama's proposed "Buffett rule" tax plan on April 16 in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

●Aside from Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, who faces a serious primary fight from his ideological right next month, there are few signs tea party-led uprisings will threaten GOP incumbents this cycle in the same way they did in 2010. (Even Indiana is something short of a pure establishment vs. tea party race; Lugar’s challenger, Richard Mourdock, currently serves as the state treasurer — not exactly the credentials of a pure outsider.)

●In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted this month, more than six in 10 people said they were not interested in learning more about the movement, and a majority said the more they learned, the less they liked. Both of those numbers have increased significantly over the past two years.

Conversations with a number of Republican strategists — both those of the tea party and those who count themselves as casual observers of the movement — suggest that the tea party isn’t dying, it’s just transforming into a new role.

“The tea party clearly is not as successful in 2012 as in 2010, but it still plays a huge role in GOP primaries,” said Republican pollster Glen Bolger.

The same Post-ABC poll that showed interest in the tea party flagging also showed that roughly four in 10 people described themselves as supporters of the movement, numbers virtually unchanged over the last year.

Sal Russo, a co-founder of the Tea Party Express, insisted that “the tea party is more vibrant now than in 2010.” The difference between now and two years ago, Russo argued, is that the movement is now centered less on pure protest and more on political action.

“Instead of the pleading about what to do, the tea party people now know what to do,” Russo said. “Campaign headquarters are bubbling over with people, very different than 2008 and 2006 when they were nearly dead.”

Of course, attributing Republican energy and intensity solely to the tea party is a bit of an oversimplification. While the tea party clearly served as an organizing force for unhappiness bubbling in conservative circles toward President Obama in the early days of his presidency, the desire to oust him from office now permeates virtually every corner of the GOP — a fact made apparent by the rapid coalescing of Republicans behind Romney in the past few weeks. (A Gallup tracking poll released last week showed Romney with the support of 90 percent of self-identified Republicans.)

Viewed broadly, it appears that the tea party may well be a victim of its own success. In 2010, it proved its powers — beating establishment-backed candidates in Senate races in Delaware, Colorado, Florida, Utah and Alaska to name a few. The result? Candidates are far more wary of crossing the tea party this time around, moving to embrace it rather than stare it down.

“The reason for the appearance of less tea party success is that the establishment candidates have moved markedly to the right this cycle,” said Jon Lerner, a Republican consultant. “As the establishment candidates have moved to the right, there is less of a gap for tea party candidates to exploit.”

Hatch is a perfect example of that phenomenon. The six-term senator spent much of the past two years relentlessly courting the tea party wing of the Utah GOP and moving his voting record to the ideological right. (In 2008, Hatch was ranked as the 29th most conservative senator in National Journal’s vote ratings. By 2011, he was up to 15th.)

Romney, too, moved to the right on fiscal issues in hopes of keeping any tea party revolt at bay. And if you needed an example of the influence the tea party’s no-compromise approach to fiscal austerity has had on the GOP, look no further than an August presidential debate in which all eight candidates said they would not accept a budget deal that included $10 in spending cuts to every $1 in revenue increases.

“The core of the movement was a shock therapy to Washington to make the national debt and the danger of the growth of government central to the debate,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist. “It’s clear Republicans got that message and Obama never will.”

The question then is what the tea party does for an encore. Having moved the GOP — and the broader debate on fiscal issues — further to the ideological right , does it re-incorporate itself into the Republican Party? Disappear entirely? Or find another cause such as fiscal austerity around which to rally?

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