Updated at 11:13 a.m. on January 6.
The red paint is still drying from the House’s proverbial change of color scheme, but the relationship between Republicans and the movement that helped elect them is already starting to chip.
With the new Congress just getting started, top agenda items include government program spending and the federal debt ceiling. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, told National Journal in November that congressional conservatives were “speaking the language of the tea party,” which is rooted in its mantra of fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.
FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon said he agrees. “I can’t imagine that these guys are going to get in there and forget everything [the tea party] talked about,” he said. “So now we’ve got a lot of champions, and if they do their job, which I think they will, we’re going to have rock stars on the inside.”
But the field of “rock stars” just got a lot more crowded.
Following losses in their respective Senate races, tea party favorites Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada each initiated her own political committee: “Christine PAC,” tentatively, and Angle’s “Patriot Caucus PAC.”
The PACs come on the heels of 2010 races muddied by hit-or-miss overlap in tea party support: FreedomWorks caused a stir when it refused to endorse O’Donnell following her unlikely primary victory; a similar shakeup occurred when various tea party groups endorsed rival candidates in New Hampshire.
With conservative tensions already building in the 112th Congress, could the widening field of tea party competition create even more drama on the Hill?
“If you put more players into the game, there’s going to be more head-butting,” said Tea Party Express spokesman Levi Russell. “But it’s a good thing because it means more people are paying attention.”
Brandon concurred. “We don’t see it as a competition,” he said. “Take Sharron Angle: The candidates she chooses and the candidates we choose may not be 100 percent, but money is very important in politics. I’d take a 90 percent partner any day.”
The Federal Election Commission shows FreedomWorks with some cash left from the election, and both Angle and O’Donnell with much more, all or much of which could be put toward their PAC efforts.
“I need all the help I can get,” Brandon said. Although Angle and O’Donnell were criticized for being “too extreme” as candidates, their headline magnetism and fundraising capabilities are proven commodities: O’Donnell was featured twice on the Associated Press’s 2010 “Top 10 Quotes of the Year,” and Angle shattered records when she raised $14 million in the third quarter alone.
It’s not all sharing and caring within the tea party circle, though.
Mark Meckler, co-founder of the original Tea Party Patriots, said that because his organization doesn’t get involved in elections, the developing PACs “aren’t of much concern. But now the question becomes, ‘What is the effect of groups like AFP [Americans for Prosperity] or FreedomWorks on the movement, and is there really a way to effectively work together, or are the cultures just too different?”
New Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was widely regarded as one of the tea party’s rising stars during the campaign season, but in the NYT report, he called tea party expectations “delusional,” saying: “As long as you have a Democratic president and a Democratic-controlled Senate, I don’t think there are many people who are expecting that the government’s going to be transformed overnight into something in the image of the tea party.”
So could a Republican Party factionalized by the tea party act as its own worst enemy? Democrats seem to think so, and are expressing concern that tea party pressure will stifle bipartisan compromise.
Republicans “appear to have set a land-speed record for losing the trust of the activists who helped elect them,” said Jon Summers, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in a statement Monday. “Now, running scared, Republicans have decided their next move should be to appease the extremists in their party, no matter who it hurts.”
Don't expect to see the activists back down anytime soon, though.
This year, the Tea Party Express has partnered with CNN for a presidential debate in September and is working on organizing a summer bus tour. Next month, the Tea Party Patriots American Policy Summit will take place in Phoenix.
“We’re bringing partners in from all over the nation,” Meckler said, “basically because it’s time to talk about serious policy initiatives.”
To help do that, Tea Party Express is “working on a House and Senate Tea Party Caucus, where conservative members who want to take part in open meetings can,” Russell said. “It will be a chance for them to get on the same terms with legislation.”
Brandon said FreedomWorks also realizes that “this year is all about pushing legislation—rolling up your sleeves and getting involved in the sausage process.”