The GOP's Tea Party Challenge

Jim DeMint is just the latest conservative flirting with the far right's growing insurgency. Mark McKinnon on who's who in the bid to lead the movement—and what Republicans can do to capitalize on it.

01.04.10 11:25 PM ET

Tea is the new Kool-Aid for Republicans. And a lot of candidates and officeholders on the right are drinking from it like a fire hose. And they tend to be some of the bigger media magnets in the party—like Sarah Palin, say, and, lately, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who’s hitting the headlines over his bid to block a Transportation Security Administration nominee.

Much of the media and most Democrats are dismissive of what is truly a grassroots movement. But the Tea Party has shown remarkable energy in its short life span—dating back about a year ago, when CNBC commentator Rick Santelli went on a live-TV rant about mortgage policy and suggested a Chicago Tea Party.

The Tea Party crowd is unlikely to actually become a third party. But their ability to leverage energy behind candidates and policies could be very similar to what has accomplished on the left.

The Republican Party brand has taken a beating in recent years, so it’s not entirely surprising that among all voters the Tea Party is attracting more support than the Grand Old Party. And among unaffiliated voters, the Tea Party outpolls both major parties.

And so we increasingly see Republicans genuflecting to the movement that has more credibility than our own party in an effort to attract attention and support among mostly conservative voters.

It’s a very interesting dance right now watching the courtship between the movement and GOP candidates and officeholders. Former Republican House leader Dick Armey, head of Freedom Works, and Fox News bugle-blower Glenn Beck are among those helping to fan the flames of Tea Party fever. But the movement is wary of being identified as “Republican” or being controlled by any individuals or organization; note how its leaders furiously shot down RNC Chairman Michael Steele’s attempt to align himself and the national party.

But that hasn’t stopped GOP bees from flying around the honey in the Tea. Nor has it stopped the movement from a soliciting a select few like-minded politicians.

So far, the Tea Party list of unofficial political patriots includes:

• Sarah Palin: the reigning queen of the disenfranchised. The former Alaska governor has been invited to be the keynote speaker at a national Tea Party symposium in San Antonio, Texas, January 24. Think this event will generate any press?

• Michele Bachmann: the reigning Tea Party princess. The Minnesota House Republican with the sharp tongue has been leading the charge at Washington rallies and is one of only two elected officials to be asked to speak at the February national convention.

• Jim DeMint: the junior senator from South Carolina, currently holding up a crucial TSA appointment. DeMint spoke at a Tea Party march in Washington Sept.12,  and Dec. 2 at a Tea Party gathering for the screening of a movie about the movement. 

• Rick Perry: The Texas governor held a Texas “Tea Party” rally on April 15, which garnered national attention and Palin’s endorsement. He always speaks highly of the tea partiers—who had to love Perry’s call for Texas to secede from the Union.

Others, like Congressmen Mike Pence (R-IN), Eric Cantor (R-VA), Joe Wilson (R-SC), and John Culberson (R-TX), are vying for a seat at the table. And you can bet many more will be clamoring for scraps in the months ahead.

The Tea Party crowd is unlikely to actually become a third party, but their ability to leverage energy behind candidates and policies could be very similar to what has accomplished on the left. Movements are also often identified by a clear leader. The question that remains: Who will that be? This list would be a good place to start.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.