Forget glad-handing and kissing babies. If last weekend's convention in Virginia is any indication, the tea party prefers politicians who play hard to get.
Case in point: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who walked away from the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Convention as the winner of the largest 2012 presidential straw poll yet. But note: "Walked away" is merely a figurative phrase; in fact, he wasn't even there.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was, and he got a warm welcome for his support of such key tea party principles as fiscal conservatism and the "repeal amendment," which would grant states the power to overturn federal legislation.
The prominence of the two rising Republican stars at the convention was striking. Was the tea party embracing just the sort of political pragmatists the movement purports to despise? Neither Christie nor McDonnell ran as tea party candidates last year. Both were successful in states that President Obama won in 2008 because they were able to sell themselves to independent voters as commonsense conservatives. But how far will that get them with a group that, so far, has made its mark by demanding strict adherence to its fiscal philosophy?
So far so good, as far as Christie is concerned. On the surface, the New Jersey governor's victory in the tea party straw poll shouldn't surprise. When it comes to the fundamentals on which the small-government movement was founded, Christie fits the bill.
Fiscal responsibility? Check. Within a month of taking office, Christie declared "a state of fiscal emergency," slashing the state budget in everything from education to hospitals.
Limited government? Check. Christie has become a proponent of lowering income taxes: Earlier this year, he vetoed a proposed tax hike within two minutes of its passage.
Free market? Check. Despite calls for charter schools and education vouchers, Christie has consistently advocated a free-market education system to promote competition.
And yet to anyone who has closely followed the tea party, Christie's anointing is head-scratching on several fronts.
First: Unlike several officials vying for the White House, such as former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Christie did not bother to make an appearance at the convention, billed as the largest official gathering of tea party members in the group's nearly two-year history. Second: Christie has reiterated his disinterest in a presidential candidacy time and time again, insisting that his focus remains on New Jersey. Last: While other Republicans have taken a stand on the tea party--either decrying it or seeking its seal of approval--Christie has yet to commit.
Tea party leaders in New Jersey contend that there's nothing cockeyed about Christie's popularity within the movement. "We understand that Chris Christie doesn't need to court us," said Tim Adriance, executive member of the New Jersey Tea Party Coalition. "His actions are proving to us that if he's trying to cut the state budget and if he's taking on the special interests head-on and trying to fix the problem, he doesn't have to come and give us a dog-and-pony show.
"He is really a very good politician ... and to come and be a part of the tea party movement is not something he needs to do to really pick off the Democrats and the other powers-that-be. When he takes the middle-of-the-road stance when it comes to who we are, it's not like he's shunning us. We really don't care who kisses our butt. Who's doing the right job--that's what we consider to be the important thing."
McDonnell's name was not on the straw-poll ballot, but his speech to the Virginia tea partiers made headlines because it was his first appearance at an official tea party event. To many conservatives, though, his participation was a long time coming. In August, while Glenn Beck was rallying tea partiers in Washington, McDonnell delivered an address at a summit organized by Americans for Prosperity, a tea party-affiliated group. He arrived at the Virginia convention fresh off his successful effort to eliminate Virginia's $4.2 billion budget deficit.
For all his fiscally conservative credentials, however, McDonnell gained his national reputation as a Republican with political crossover appeal. Just this week, McDonnell crowned both Christie and himself as the beacons of hope lighting Republicans' road to Washington. "We're kind of the beginning of the wave," he said on his monthly radio show on Tuesday on WNIS. "We both won independent voters. We both had a 24, 25 swing from President Obama the year before. We kind of showed something was going on in the country."
So where exactly do these emergent champions of fiscal conservatism fit into the current political tide? Can they be the golden boys of the Republican establishment and the golden boys of the movement that wants to overthrow it?
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said that both governors' involvement is indicative of the tea party's ever-mounting power on the national scene. "Neither one has a choice" about engaging with the tea party, he said. "If they want a future, they have to play up to the tea party people at least for the time being."
Tea party activists "could potentially dominate future nominating contests," Sabato added. "So this is something that, as good politicians, they have to do."
Jamie Radtke, chairperson of the Virginia Tea Party Patriot Federation and point person for the convention, confirmed that the group invited McDonnell but said that the governor's decision to accept was a shrewd career move. "The tea party is starting to represent larger and larger pieces of the population, and that has to be taken seriously," she said. "You can't ignore such a large voting population."
Adriance was willing to cut his home-state governor some slack when it comes to tea party involvement, noting that New Jersey is a historically Democratic-leaning state, while Virginia tilts Republican. Each governor, in his estimation, is approaching the tea party in a way calculated to enhance his standing at home.
"Both are doing the job that they need to do," he said. "If for McDonnell, it involves getting with the tea party, great. For Chris Christie, it means not having our 'tainted name'--and the reason I say 'tainted name' is because the liberal press is using us as a punching bag for everything under the sun--because he has got a dramatic opposition."
Still, Adriance sees Christie as the tea party's kind of guy: "He's literally grabbing the state Legislature, sort of like the jackass that doesn't want to move--grabbing it by the rope around the neck and pulling along, and it's kicking and screaming the whole way."