Rick Santorum's sweep of Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado this week suggested it was his turn to get some tea party love. Finally.
The famously decentralized movement has moved from candidate to candidate in early Republican nominating contests. Newt Gingrich secured 45 percent of the vote of South Carolinians who identified as tea party supporters, according to CNN exit polls. But it was a different story in Florida and Nevada, where Mitt Romney won the tea party vote by 41 and 47 percent, respectively.
The shifts reflect a fact of life for tea party supporters: Their preferred standard-bearers – Herman Cain, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry – have toppled one by one. Even with Santorum’s victories this week, the Republican nominee could well be Romney, the moderate former governor of Massachusetts.
Carol Taylor of Jacksonville, Fla., was among the feisty conservative activists at a Labor Day rally billed as “A Conservative Roar from the I-4 Corridor.” She and other volunteers from tea party groups gave a rousing reception to the keynote speaker, Cain.
Five months later, she’s not thrilled that Romney is leading the race for the nomination, but she’s not surprised, either. If he ends up the GOP choice, she’s hoping he picks a running mate more in line with her principles. “It’s a question of am I going to hold half of my nose or all of my nose?” Taylor said.
Resignation seems to be the overriding mood among tea party activists around the country. In the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections, this headless coalition of citizen-warriors — enraged by what they saw as out-of-control federal spending and government overreach — was lionized for helping the GOP capture a majority in the House of Representatives and post impressive gains in the Senate and statehouses across the country.
Two years later, there’s mounting evidence that tea party influence is on the wane, particularly when it comes to the biggest race of all. The only options left now are Romney, who signed “Romneycare” – a close relative to the conservative bane of “Obamacare”; Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House who supported both an individual health care mandate and cap-and-trade legislation before running for president; Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who secured millions of dollars in earmarks during his years in Congress; and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, whose isolationist foreign policy scares off a fair number of conservatives.
The attempts of the tea party stars and kingmakers of yesteryear to exert influence have also fallen flat. Romney lost South Carolina even with the high-profile backing of Gov. Nikki Haley, a tea party favorite boosted by Sarah Palin when she ran in 2010. Gingrich lost Florida despite a nod and a wink from Palin and outright endorsements from Perry and Cain. Tea party darling Sharron Angle, the insurgent Senate nominee who failed to knock out Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., endorsed Rick Santorum shortly before his last-place finish in the Nevada caucuses.
And some prominent tea party figures in states with early contests have chosen to stay out of the melee altogether. Santorum won Tuesday night without the blessings of Bachmann in Minnesota or 2010 Senate nominee Ken Buck of Colorado. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina did not endorse anyone and Maine Gov. Paul LePage, another officeholder strongly identified with the tea party, is not expected to endorse anyone before the results of the state’s week-long caucus are announced on Saturday.
Moreover, public opinion regarding the movement has also taken a dive. A November analysis by the Pew Research Center found that more Americans disagreed with the tea party than agreed, 27 percent to 20 percent (right after the sweeping tea party gains in the 2010 midterm elections, 27 percent agreed and 22 percent disagreed). An August CNN/Time poll found that 51 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of the tea party.
Sal Russo, cofounder of the California-based Tea Party Express and a GOP consultant, sees a bright side in the fluctuating loyalties of tea party primary voters. He calls it evidence that all of the Republican candidates have incorporated tea party principles into their platforms. “I’m happy that it’s like fishing at a fish farm. You’re guaranteed the rainbow trout,” Russo said. “There’s four good candidates … and we’re happy to let the process play out.”
Many activists are less enthused. Joe Dugan, a lead organizer for the Myrtle Beach tea party in South Carolina, is slowly coming to terms with the fact that the window of opportunity for Gingrich – his pick -- is rapidly closing. If Romney is the nominee, Dugan said, “I will support him but I will work even more vigorously to ensure that conservative candidates are elected to the Senate and to the House … so that if Mitt Romney does not do the things that need to be done, Congress can do them.”
Jack Van Dien of Gardnerville, Nev., seemed equally uninspired by Romney and Obama. “I’m a constitutionalist and I don’t think Romney is,” said Van Dien, who caucused for Ron Paul. “If it comes down to Romney or Obama, I’m probably not going to make up my mind until the last minute.”