It was the passage of that legislation, commonly known as Obamacare, that animated the movement when it first emerged in 2009.
“I’ve not seen this level of intensity since we fought to keep Obamacare from passing,” said JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America, a group of conservative activists based in Tyler, Tex. “I’m getting calls from people who are not in our network, saying, ‘Can we do something?’ It’s a full-time job just trying to get rid of all my e-mails.”
But the tea party’s renewed presence also poses serious political risks for Republicans, undermining efforts to broaden the party’s appeal. The movement itself could be blamed for contributing to Washington’s dysfunction if it helps set in motion a government shutdown next week or, later in October, a national credit default.
“In the overall scheme of things, it’s largely a sideshow,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, a former top Capitol Hill aide, said of the current Obamacare debate roiling Congress. “However, it has stolen the spotlight from the president’s weaknesses and put it right on Republican infighting, and showed a lack of direction about where we want to go strategically as a party.”
The worsening GOP split was on display earlier this week when Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a tea party leader, held the floor for 21 hours with a marathon speech calling on Republicans to join his effort to defund Obamacare. The tactic infuriated many of his GOP colleagues but further energized the conservative base.
“I like the passion that they bring. The party desperately needs that,” said Frank Donatelli, a veteran GOP leader. But, he added, “the cautionary tale I remind every Republican who I talk to is, ‘You only win elections by putting coalitions together.’ ”
The tea party movement rose to prominence in the early years of Obama’s presidency, helping drive a surge of conservative activism that helped flip control of the House to Republicans in 2010. At the time, according to CBS-New York Times polling, nearly a third of Americans considered themselves tea party supporters.
The movement’s popularity, though faded, shows signs of growing again: A quarter of Americans in a new CBS-New York Times survey between Sept. 19 and 23 said they support the tea party, up four points from two weeks earlier.
The movement exerts substantial sway over the GOP leaders in the House, who backed an effort to strip funding for Obamacare in a budget bill passed last week. The Democratic-controlled Senate stripped out the Obamacare portion Friday and sent it back to the House — setting the stage for a potential government shutdown Tuesday.