Washington Bureau

05.31.14

Conservative Senator Kicks Tea Party to the Curb

At the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans this week, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson tried to distance himself from the Tea Party groups that helped elect him in 2010.

If Ron Johnson was running any faster from the Tea Party he'd leave skid marks.

Back in 2010, the Wisconsin senator was one of the Tea Party’s first candidates. His upset victory over incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold in that deep purple swing state was seen as proof that a new brand of conservatism was on the march.

But Johnson, a businessman and political novice when he was first elected, told reporters at a gathering of grassroots conservatives activists in New Orleans this week that it may be time for that march to slow down.

“I think the conservative movement may just be maturing a little bit. You can be very doctrinaire, you can demand purity, but in the end if you want to advance policy that you want enacted you have to win elections,” Johnson said when asked about a recent spate of Tea Party losses around the country.

The Wisconsin Republican blamed national and local Tea Party groups for holding the GOP hostage. “My guess is that the Tea Party groups have always been separate from the Tea Party movement.”

Johnson burst onto the national scene after given a number of fiery speeches at Tea Party rallies before he was even a candidate, and told a reporter that he “did kind of spring out of the Tea Party.”

At the Republican Leadership Conference however, Johnson downplayed his involvement with the movement, saying, “I gave a speech at a few Tea Parties. I never joined a group.”

“I value the membership of the Tea Party movement. I am right there with them ideologically, I mean, ‘Taxed Enough Already.’ But the groups don’t necessarily represent all of the individuals in the movement. I think the individuals are now realizing they may have been led astray by an individual group or two and they really do understand that they have to win elections,” he said, adding, “My guess is the Tea Party grassroots are maybe a little more flexible.”

Johnson also accused Tea Party groups of bashing the GOP establishment to raise money.

“That is a fact. It is not a conjecture, and so many of these groups it is basically donor capture. They are there to perpetuate themselves.”

Johnson urged conservatives to tone down their rhetoric to try to broaden the base.

“If you start out bombastic, if you start out with conspiracies, they aren’t going to listen to you.”