Until last night, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that the Tea Party was on the wane. Congressional leaders of the nascent movement, like Allen West and Joe Walsh had lost reelection, or, like Jim DeMint, had decided to leave politics altogether. House Speaker John Boehner had stripped some of the more outspoken members of the Tea Party caucus of their congressional leadership posts, a sign that the GOP establishment was no longer going to be led by its ultra-conservative tail. The big money groups backing the Tea Party were falling apart in a spate of post-election season squabbling.
But after 85 House Republicans joined Boehner in raising taxes without spending reductions during the end game of Monday night’s fiscal-cliff negotiations, Tea Party leaders and conservative activists from around the country are dusting off their tri-corner hats and “Don’t Tread On Me” signs, and now say that their members are as energized as they have ever been since the first Tax Day protests in 2009. And the Republican Party, they add, had better beware.
“We now have 85 members of the House who have shunned their noses at us,” said Dustin Stockton, a Texas- and Nevada-based operative and the chief strategist of The Tea Party.net. “Our job now is to recruit and inspire and motivate people to run against those Republicans who did it.”
For Tea Partiers and fiscally conservative Republican rank-and filers, the Congress that ended its term this week was at last a chance to get federal spending under control. Hopes were high that this class, which more than doubled the number of members in the House’s Tea Party caucus on their first day, would repudiate previous Republican tendencies to reverse campaign promises and open up the spending spigot as soon as they had their hands on it. And if these newly minted members failed, the Tea Party promised to rally its energy behind new challengers who wouldn’t.
Instead however, this Congress voted to increase spending three times, and never once to cut taxes. The final indignity, the bill to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” by raising taxes on the wealthiest, was negotiated behind closed doors and at the last minute, anathema to a group that had pledged unprecedented openness around legislation. Plus, as many Tea Party leaders around the nation pointed out, the bill that was passed this week includes $1 dollar of spending reductions for every $41 of new taxes.
“I was shocked about that. I was in complete shock,” said Louisiana GOP chairman Roger Villere, Jr., who, despite working in the establishment, has actively courted Tea Party types in the Bayou. “I think the conservative movement is going to get fired up. I don’t see people getting depressed. I see people getting fired up and working twice as hard.”
And it’s not just local grassroots groups that have been incensed about the deal, but even GOP insiders with close ties to the movement, such as Villere and some of the well-heeled national umbrella organizations that provided the Tea Party some institutional heft.
“Outrageous,” said Matt Kibbe, president of Freedom Works, “is an understatement. This bill is an epic fail.”
“We always knew that we had some people who were willing to go to the dark side of the force. We now need to show that the Tea Party movement isn’t dead.”
Already, those outside the official party apparatus are considering primarying incumbents, in some cases taking on those they helped elect a mere two years ago.
Ben Potiker, a Tea Party organizer in upstate New York who helped Republican Chris Gibson knock off a Democratic incumbent in 2010, said he wrote a note on Facebook to his friend that said, “What happened? As a candidate you ran on the call that we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem, but here you go and cast a vote that does nothing to cut spending.”
“To try to reduce the deficit on the backs of taxpayers is just wrong,” Potiker added. And he pledged that his local Tea Party group would do a better job of screening candidates in the future.
“Gibson’s votes since he got elected have been disappointing,” he said. “Now we won’t fall for the rhetoric. We will do a lot more vetting and dig deeper on what their plans are.”
Stockton, the Tea Party organizer, likewise helped elect Congressman Joe Heck over a Democratic incumbent in the Las Vegas suburbs during the Tea Party wave of 2010. Now he says, “Joe Heck will face a primary challenge for sure.”
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” he said. “The Republican Party has a branding issue. The brand is never to raise taxes and we see this as a tax increase, and you see the Obama administration spiking the football, saying they broke the Republicans’ ‘Iron Ceiling’ of no new tax increases. Republicans and people like Heck now have a serious problem when they try to reach people like us.”
In Ohio, Cincinnati Tea Party president George Brunemann said he looked forward to “having a conversation” with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who voted in favor of the measure.
“I think you will see more challenges [in 2014],” he said. “I am deeply concerned. We always knew that we had some people who were willing to go to the dark side of the force. We now need to show that the Tea Party movement isn’t dead.”
Organizers say an immediate challenge is to keep the Tea Party together after it has dissipated from its peak in 2010—a tough task for a group that has prided itself on its non-hierarchical infrastructure. On message boards, some were looking for other ways to stay active, such as refusing to pay their income tax or forming at last a third-party counterweight to the GOP.
“What we are hearing from activists is an incredible sense of frustration,” said Stockton. What we have to do is take people from a more radical course of action and steer it towards more productive courses. And 2014 will be our first opportunity.”
Chad Connelly, the chairman of the South Carolina GOP—a state where the Republican congressional delegation voted uniformly against the bill—agreed, and said another wave election was approaching, never mind who is standing in the way.
“If you think 2010 was the Tea Party Congress, just wait until 2014. You will see people even more angry and up in arms. I don’t think we have seen nothing yet.”