04.05.11

The Tea Party Express 2012 Game Plan

The largest Tea Party group is co-sponsoring a presidential debate with CNN, vetting more viable candidates for 2012—and sticking with the GOP. Eleanor Clift on how the organization is coping with its waning support.

For a collection of political newcomers, the Tea Party Express is rapidly coming of age.

The largest of the Tea Party groups, it is partnering with CNN to sponsor a presidential debate on Sept. 12 in Tampa. Signing on with the mainstream media outlet requires the group to stay neutral in the Republican primary contest until after the event. Then it is free to endorse, but if its preferred contender doesn’t win the nomination, would the Tea Party field its own candidate?

The Tea Party touts its independence from the two major political parties, and it targets some Republicans with the same zeal it does Democrats. But when it comes to offering a third-party candidate, Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, says flatly, “No, we need to work from within.” With a third party, “all you do is split the vote.” She’s right, and that kind of pragmatic assessment will reinforce the Tea Party’s role as a kingmaker for the GOP in 2012.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, Kremer noted that her group has held four nationwide bus tours, which put the organization on the map, beginning in August 2009, and could keep staging such tours “until the end of time.” But a more strategic approach is needed, she says, to change the players in Washington.

Public support for the Tea Party has plunged, but the energy it brings to the political arena still poses a significant electoral threat to both parties. In the latest CNN/Public Opinion Research poll, the Tea Party's negative rating has risen 21 points since January 2010, with the group achieving in its short life almost the same unfavorable rating as the two major political parties—47 percent versus 48 percent for the Democrats and Republicans.

As Obama and others are learning, recapturing momentum once you’ve lost it is a stiff challenge.

Kremer was eager to talk about the 2012 Senate races, where the Tea Party Express has identified its four top targets—Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Indiana’s Richard Lugar on the Republican side, and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow and Nebraska’s Ben Nelson on the Democratic side. She said Snowe votes more with Democrats than Republicans, and that Lugar is “one of the worst offenders among Republicans” in working with the other side. She cited a letter from 60 organizations in Indiana saying it’s time for Lugar to retire after more than 30 years in the Senate.

Nelson aroused the Tea Party’s ire with a special deal he struck—known as the Cornhusker Kickback—in exchange for his vote for President Obama’s health-care plan. Kremer calls Stabenow “an advocate for the big-government nanny state.”

After backing some 2010 nominees who lost races that more mainstream Republicans could have won (notably in Delaware and Nevada), the group is meeting with prospective candidates and vetting them with an eye toward producing more viable contenders.

Most notably, she and her colleagues are giving Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown a pass, a decision that doesn’t sit well with everyone in the movement. Elected as a Tea Party favorite to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat, he has strayed from the conservative agenda on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and financial reform. “There are people who want to go after him,” says Kremer, noting Brown wouldn’t be considered a conservative in her home state of Georgia. But in Massachusetts, “I don’t think you’re going to get anybody more conservative. Sometimes it comes down to the lesser of two evils.”

Kremer is a former real-estate agent and Delta Airlines flight attendant who started blogging when her daughter, now 20, went off to college. A single mom, she joined Facebook to keep up with her daughter, and that led her to Twitter. She remembers the February day in 2009 when CNBC’s Rick Santelli shouted on the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange about the unfairness of the bank bailout. People were upset with Washington before that, says Kremer, but “he lit the fire.” She saw it on the Internet through #TCOT, which is Top Conservatives on Twitter, and became one of the original 22 on a call the day after Santelli voiced the rant that went viral. “It’s amazing what we were able to accomplish with no game plan,” says Kremer.

Now the Tea Party Express has a game plan, but as President Obama and others are learning, recapturing momentum once you’ve lost it is a stiff challenge.

Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek.