The tea party is dead; long live the tea party. Despite a national media that craves the spectacle of a tea party-versus-establishment fight for the soul of the Republican Party, the populist conservative movement that so dominated the 2010 elections has played a microscopic role in the 2012 primary season.
The tea party movement that cost Robert Bennett his Senate seat two years ago in Utah and drove far-right candidates to Republican nominations in states like Colorado, Nevada, and Delaware has waned. There are no longer tea party protests or conventions. And while there are more candidates claiming the tea party mantle, few of them are associated with the movement itself.
That’s not to say the tea party movement has not had a tremendous impact on the Republican Party—it has. House Speaker John Boehner may hail from an older order of Republicanism, but his “Boehner Rule,” requiring Congress to cut an amount equal to any debt-ceiling increase, is pure tea party. The tea party movement has “convinced Republicans in Washington that they had to focus on spending as well as taxes,” says Grover Norquist, the antitax activist. In that sense, it has forced Republicans to go beyond simply cutting taxes as a policy prescription.
It has even forced some incumbents to change their habits. Sen. Orrin Hatch, seeking reelection in Utah, stands as the most obvious example: Since his colleague Bennett lost renomination, Hatch’s tone has been strikingly more conservative—and so have his votes, like the one against the Violence Against Women Act, a bill he cosponsored in 1994.
But the tea party’s legacy in Washington’s political industry has been to spur growth among organizations fighting for supremacy within the Republican Party writ large. Consider some of the Senate candidates who have assumed the tea party mantle so far this year, like Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, Nebraska Treasurer Don Stenberg, and former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz. Mourdock, who has run for statewide office or Congress seven times, began his campaign by courting local party officials and making clear that he would position himself just a few steps to Sen. Richard Lugar’s right. Stenberg had run for statewide office even more often, beginning decades before the tea party movement came into being. Cruz, who on Tuesday advanced to a runoff in the race to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, has no voting record to speak of, giving him fewer demerits on his conservative scorecard than his rival, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
The one thing Mourdock, Stenberg, and Cruz have in common is support from a few national conservative groups who stand as shorthand for the tea party: FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, and Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund. All three groups either bundled or spent money on behalf of the three candidates. Those organizations are just as interested in building their own national platform from which to elect the most conservative candidates possible—a goal seemingly at odds with a movement initially organized around hyper-local hubs, rather than the Beltway.
Part of that evolution, from localized to nationalized, is natural. The tea party movement is the latest arch-conservative wave that has changed the Republican Party—Goldwaterites in 1964; the family-values activists led by Phyllis Schlafly who organized against the Equal Rights Amendment; the Religious Right that backed Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign in 1988; and even Rep. Ron Paul’s fans, who now control state party organizations in Alaska, Idaho, and Nevada. (Even Iowa’s state GOP chair is a Ron Paul backer.)
That’s what happens to movements, Norquist says. “In 2009, 2010, a whole bunch of people who had not heretofore been political got scared by all the spending by Obama and got active and went out to demonstrations,” he says. “You get people excited about something, and a certain percentage of them stay active.”
In truth, the Grand Old Party has been searching for its identity since the middle of the last decade. Fed up with George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism (and the higher spending and new entitlement programs that came along with it), activists sat on their hands in 2006 and 2008. By 2010, galvanized against President Obama, the animating force behind the wave of Republican victories was the populist movement aimed, in part, at clearing out the dead weight within their own party.
Candidates running this year use the tea party label to signal their own conservatism. But instead of accepting the tea party-versus-establishment construct that’s so easy it’s alluring, the candidates are evidence that the tea party has gone mainstream, changing both itself and the GOP in the process.
This article appears in the May 31, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.