As they surveyed the wreckage of the 2012 elections, Republican Party elders agreed: The Tea Party must die.
At the time, killing it didn’t seem like such a hard task. The Tea Party was already reeling after the clown show of the 2012 presidential primaries, and after a couple of hand-picked Tea Party candidates revealed an inability to stop talking about rape, the GOP found themselves still in the minority in the Senate. The Tea Party caucus in the House folded up shop, and pundits across the political spectrum declared the movement so 2010, something confined to a historical blip, like that JetBlue flight attendant who popped the rubber slide open to flee obnoxious passengers, or like the original Grown Ups movie.
But a funny thing has happened as the next election cycle approaches. The farthest-right reaches of the Republican Party have come roaring back. And they make the Todd Akins and Michele Bachmanns of the world seem reasonable by comparison.
Consider Texas, where Attorney General Greg Abbott is running for governor. Abbott once described his daily routine as going into the office, suing Barack Obama, and then calling it a day. He has sued the federal government 27 times in all, including one time he sought to have the Americans With Disabilities Act declared unconstitutional. At his campaign-kickoff announcement, his staff distributed signs that said “Fast cars, firearms, and freedom—Endorsed by Greg Abbott.”
Or consider the case of Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee in Virginia. His predecessor shocked liberals when he supported a bill that would require women who seek abortions to undergo a vaginal probe; Cuccinelli has backed anti-adultery and anti-sodomy laws. And while he is running neck-and-neck against Democrat Terry MacAuliffe, party elders in Old Dominion are wondering what would have happened if the far more palatable lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, had been the pick. In Minnesota, Bachmann is set to retire from her seat in Congress. The frontrunner to replace her is Tom Emmer, a Bachmann’s Bachmann, proposing in 2010 that the Minnesota Constitution be amended so that the state could nullify federal laws it did not approve of. He opposes anti-bullying legislation, and wants to eliminate the minimum wage.
At the beginning of the year, Republican bigwigs decided that they would need to do something to prevent the furthest fringes from hijacking the primary process, so they could avoid more Christine O’Donnells, Joe Millers, and Todd Akins. Oh, well: In the last two weeks alone Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, longtime Wyoming senator Mike Enzi, and South Carolina senior senator Lindsey Graham all received announced primary challenges. And in at least a half-dozen other cases, GOP leaders are worried that an outside-the-mainstream candidate for either an open or incumbent’s seat will torpedo the party’s chances. Even many of the same figures have returned, the establishment’s scorn the last time around fueling the fire—Christine O’Donnell, Joe Miller, and Nevada’s Sharron Angle are all making noises about getting back into the fray.
“There has been a change in terms of the party makeup. There used to be an acceptance of all ends of ideological beliefs having a common bond and moving forward,” said Mike Castle, a former governor and at-large congressman from Delaware who saw his all but certain bid for the U.S. Senate upended by O’Donnell. A Democrat now holds the seat. “There is a serious rift, which is a problem. And in my judgment it is not diminishing at this point.”
Tea Party–based political operatives are fanning out across the country in anticipation of 2014. Sal Russo, co-founder of the Tea Party Express, said that his group had already traveled to 10 states and interviewed 41 candidates for U.S. Senate offices. If the GOP does not control the Senate, it is not his fault, he said.
“We supported a number of establishment candidates, but the establishment candidates got taken to the cleaners. They lost almost every race,” he said. “They throw Richard Mourdock and Christine O’Donnell at us, but, well you have lost more than we have.”
The movement grew, he said, “because we took on Republicans with bad records. If we were just an arm of the Republican Party, who would have supported us?”
Phenomena like the Tea Party are not without precedence on the American political landscape. In the mid-1990s H. Ross Perot ignited a wave of tired-of-the-same-old-politics voters with his Reform Party. Ralph Nader and the Green Party enjoyed some momentary momentum at the end of the Clinton era, homeland security became issue No. 1 for a number of voters in the Bush era, and more recently, the Netroots and the Occupy movement each had a moment before petering out.
And the Tea Partiers seemed likely to follow suit. The movement grew out of some of the economic shocks of 2008 and conservative disappointment with the George W. Bush administration. Throw in the vaguely foreign-sounding new president and an ambitious agenda on stimulus, health care, and bank bailouts, and you have a combustible mix.
Now though Obama is a familiar presence, the economy has largely stabilized, and the chance of anything like the health-care bill ever making it through Congress is zero.
“I think a lot of the people in the media thought it was over but it’s not, because you have a fair number of people [in Congress] who think that compromise is the worst thing you can do, and a fair number of other people [in Congress] who are absolutely petrified of them,” said Theda Skocpol, a professor of political science at Harvard University and the author of The Tea Party and the Remaking of American Conservatism. “They have a messianic quality about them, almost a kamikaze quality to them, and when John Boehner says, ‘Judge us by how many laws we repeal,’ he is catering to that element.”
The Tea Party, she said, wasn’t so much popular across the country as it was punching above its weight politically by getting to the polls on primary days.
“It is a mistake to think that political power and popularity are the same thing,” she said. “They are not popular, but they have a stranglehold on probably about 70 members of the House of Representatives and they have money and people to back them up.”
Their effectiveness came from a simple and streamlined way of communicating votes and views to a highly motivated public and to deep-pocket donors. Candidates, she said, are evaluated on their stance on fiscal issues and abortion, on very simple litmus-test-type votes. Voters are given a simple report card of where candidates stand.
Governor Castle said that if he were to run in a GOP primary again, even in liberal Delaware, he would still lose, even if again it meant handing the seat over to the Democrats.
“To them there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats, and that is a problem for a political party,” he said.
Castle thinks that the only way to end the Tea Party fever is for moderates to do what the far right has done—run in primaries against incumbents who have veered to far to the right.
None of the establishment figures interviewed for this article thought that the Tea Party would become a permanent part of the Republican Party. It is too old, too white in a young and diverse country. But few were willing to predict when the demise would ultimately come.
“When a movement is on its last legs, it can be very motivated,” said Skocpol. “Conservatives who feel like they are losing their country are putting all they can into gaining a powerful foothold in the states and in Congress. So they don’t feel like they are about to lose at all.”