As the tea party rose to political prominence in 2010, it became abundantly clear that the vast majority of those who identified themselves as members of the movement also saw themselves as Republicans.
The tea party then was best understood in that election not as the early stirring of a third party but rather a different way of describing the smaller government, lower taxes adherents that had been a part of the GOP coalition for ages.
New polling out of Pew — conducted in 60 districts currently represented by members of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus — suggests that a rift may be forming between the tea party and the GOP, however.
The numbers are stark. As recently as this spring, 55 percent of people living in these 60 tea party House districts had a favorable view of the Republican party while 39 percent viewed the GOP in an unfavorable light.
Now, just 41 percent of people living in these 60 districts have a favorable opinion of the Republican party while 48 percent have an unfavorable view.
Those numbers are remarkably similar to how people in these 60 tea party districts view the Democratic party; 39 percent have a favorable opinion of Democrats while 50 percent see the party unfavorably.
What happened? To put it bluntly: governing.
Establishment Republicans smartly wrapped their arms around the tea party during the 2010 election, grasping that by channeling the passion and energy of these like-minded voters they could score major victories at the ballot box.
But once the tea party helped elect a Republican majority, the expectations of what that majority would do were unrealistic. (Sidebar: This is the exact problem that President Obama has had with his political base since winning the nation’s highest office in 2008.)
House Speaker John Boehner cut a deal to keep the government operating in April and another to raise the debt ceiling in August. While both compromises were generally regarded by non-partisan observers (and definitely by Democrats) as victories for the GOP, there was consternation within the tea party wing of the Republican party that any deal was cut.
Remember that on the final vote to raise the debt ceiling, 66 Republicans — more than 25 percent of the 240 GOPers in the House — defected from GOP leadership and voted “no”. The “no’s” included major tea party figures like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott and Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh.
(Bachmann’s high-profile opposition to the debt ceiling deal helped fuel her rise in the presidential race over the summer as well.).
The establishment wing of the GOP is, ultimately, playing within the pre-written rules of the current political system. That means not letting the U.S go into default or letting the government shut down.
The tea party wing of the Republican party, on the other hand, is entirely untethered to the need to “make things work” and, in fact, would prefer — on most issues — for the government to not work all that well (or at least that there would be less of it.)
Put simply: If the 2010 election brought the tea party and the Republican party together, the first session of the 112th Congress has driven the two sides apart.
What the tea party has seen over the past nine months then is politicians acting like politicians — a reality that explains why there is very little difference between how people in these districts view the Republican and Democratic parties
To win next November, Republican candidates will need tea partiers to not just be with them but to display the same sort of vigor and enthusiasm that they did in 2010.
What Republican strategists have to bank on is that the distaste for President Obama among tea partiers is great enough to overcome any qualms they might have about voting for Republican candidates who they don’t believe entirely represent their interests.
“The reality is the President’s job disapproval will be THE defining barometer in these districts,” said Republican pollster John McLaughlin in an e-mail to the Fix.
The GOP has to hope he’s right.