Politics

01.16.12

Can the South Carolina Primary Help Revive the Tea Party?

The anybody-but-Romney crowd hopes Tea Party types in South Carolina can keep their candidacies alive. But the faction’s faithful need some renewal, too.

Big treat for the Tea Party conventioneers today. Not one, but two presidential contenders stopped by to pay their respects and say a few words before this evening’s debate.

Up first was Senator Sweater-Vest, all sugar and smiles as he and the wife made their way through the swarm of journalists and well-wishers to the front of the room. (Alas, the kids had gotten caught in traffic and separated from the caravan.)

During his allotted 20 minutes, Rick Santorum made his plea for the nomination of  “a conviction conservative,” not some finger-to-the-wind conservative of convenience. (Yeah, he’s looking at you, Mittens.)  American exceptionalism, the right to life, personal gratification vs. moral responsibility, the freedom to do “God’s will,” the dangers of Obamacare—he hit all the sweet spots. But his core message came down to: don’t buy into that whole “siren’s song” of electability, people. “If you believe that what you believe is right for America—and it is, because it’s at the heart of what we believe in—then we have to believe that that’s a winning message for America.”

Wow. That’s a whole lot of believing.

Next up: Newt and Callista (who stood blonde and beaming at her hubby’s side for the entire address). Santorum’s boyish charms notwithstanding, the ex-speaker really knew how to stroke the crowd. He started off with a couple of basic questions: “How many of you believe that Washington is very much on the wrong track? How many believe the problems run deeper than Barack Obama?” Then—amid the clapping and hooting and "amen"-ing—he presented his case for being the only candidate “tough, bold, and strong” enough to take down Obama, “the most radical president in the history of the United States.” (The man does have a way with hyperbole.)

Even as the GOP contenders look to the Tea Party to help boost their chances in South Carolina, the Tea Party movement is looking to South Carolina for help reenergizing its members.

After a series of alarmist, flamboyant references to Saul Alinsky, European socialism, the “food-stamp president,” and the fundamental loserish-ness of Mitt Romney, Hurricane Gingrich blew back out of the room, leaving behind the faint smell of scorched earth. The crowd looked thoroughly sated.

Red meat aside, neither candidate’s address was particularly newsworthy. (Such is the nature of stump speeches.) That said, the very fact of these appearances was key not just for the South Carolina Tea Party, but for the movement as a whole. Because even as the GOP contenders look to the Tea Party to help boost their chances in South Carolina, the Tea Party movement is looking to South Carolina for help reenergizing its members.

It’s been a rough few months for the Tea Party. After last year’s ugly debt-ceiling showdown, the movement’s popularity went through the floor, prompting movement leaders to do a bit of soul searching and strategizing.

“We took a step back and regrouped,” Jenny Beth Martin, a founder of the Tea Party Patriots, told me after her convention speech Sunday. Better messaging became a priority (“We’ve got to explain why it’s so important to the average person!” says Martin), as did efforts to keep the movement’s energy level high with things like state-coordinator conferences.

Despite these efforts, the party has been awfully quiet of late—even in the friendly climes of South Carolina.

“In the central part of the state, I haven’t seen any movement at all,” Rep. Joe Wilson (of “You lie!” fame) told me Sunday. Expressing surprise and relief at the size of the convention crowd (roughly 500), he noted, “I seriously thought I’d get here and see 30 or so people.”

The hope among Tea Partiers is that all the sturm and drang surrounding the debates and primary this week will give people a lift. “We’re hoping to use the energy around the primary to get new people involved,” says Martin.

Helping the cause, 250 Tea Party state coordinators are holding a conference in Charleston on primary day next weekend.

Many of these people aren’t regular party activists, Martin explains. “They haven’t had a lot of direct communications with candidates. We’re hoping this pumps them up and helps them feel that ‘I do make a difference.’”

Then again, if, despite all this energy, Tea Partiers wind up disappointed with the nominee, the movement could face an even tougher energy crisis.

They’re trying to stress the long view, says Martin. They’re reminding people that the movement is not even three years old, “and we’re building our minor league.” Then, four or eight years down the road, she says, they’ll be in a much better position.

Maybe. But that’s a long time to keep the fires stoked with a movement that burns this hot.