Growing Up

With Incumbents To Protect, The Tea Party Is Now Playing Defense

Four years after its emergence as a political force, the Tea Party is now coping with its adolescence.

Brooks Kraft/Corbis

Adolescence is never easy, especially for awkward outsiders still unsure of their place in the social hierarchy. Take the Tea Party. On the one hand, it’s under attack by an openly hostile Republican establishment, which blames the uncouth party crashers for ruining what should have been a glorious 2012 electoral rout. (Never mind that Karl Rove couldn’t buy a win for his establishment pets either.) More broadly, the movement’s sputtering public approval coupled with some high-profile losses—including key failures in this month’s Texas primaries—have much of the political world asking if the conservative insurrection is already over.

At the same time, Tea Partyers have enjoyed enough success (Matt Salmon, Justin Amash, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee…) that they now have concrete territory to defend. “Whereas before you were trying to get your guy elected, now you’ve got to start protecting them,” observes Adam Brandon, executive vice president of the Tea-Party aligned FreedomWorks, which this week endorsed its first batch of incumbents for the midterms.

For a grassroots phenomenon defined by its throw-the-bums-out rage, this keep-some-of-the-bums-in mandate requires strategic adjustments—or at least more expansive thinking. Loyal incumbents must be protected, while disappointing ones are reassessed and even cut loose. (Are you paying attention, Senator Rubio?) With increasingly fierce pushback from the GOP establishment, new sources of funding for Tea Party rebels become critical. And, as the movement seeks to prove its staying power and relevance, the eternal tension between pragmatism and idealism must be periodically revisited.

It used to be so easy, say Tea Party leaders. Back in 2010, expectations were low and simply getting attention was a victory of sorts. “2010 was about grabbing people by the lapels and shaking the living death out of them,” says Taylor Budowich, executive director of Tea Party Express. “We were pushing back against Republicans and Democrats, saying, ‘Both of you have become complacent about out-of-control spending.’”

For it’s part, the GOP was caught flat-footed by the rebellion. “[Former Sen. Bob] Bennett didn’t see Mike Lee coming,” says Brandon. “[Former Sen. Dick] Lugar may have seen Richard Mourdock coming, but he was slow to react.”

Those days are long gone, as Tea Partyers confront a newly mobilized enemy in their efforts to unseat Republican fixtures like Mitch McConnell and Thad Cochran. “They’re circling the wagons now,” says Brandon. “Tactics are changing. K Street and the establishment guys are fighting back.”

More troubling to movement leaders, GOP moneyed interests are taking aim at Tea Party lawmakers deemed disruptive and bad for the brand. Rep. Justin Amash’s hard line on the debt ceiling, for instance, outraged key business interests, including the Chamber of Commerce, which have lined up behind his primary challenger, Brian Ellis. Tea Party Express is keeping a close eye on the race, and FreedomWorks has vowed to defend Amash “punch-for-punch.” “Five years ago, I never would have imagined the Republican Party would be coming after people the Tea Party had gotten elected,” says Keli Carender, the national grassroots coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. “It still shocks me.”

At the same time, Tea Partyers are fending off Republican attempts to “kneecap” the movement as a whole, says Carender. “What they’re trying to do right now is build the meme that groups like ours and the Senate Conservatives Fund are in it ‘for profit.’ ” It’s a play to discredit TPP with the conservative base and peel away the small-dollar donors it relies on, charges Carender: “Not only are we fighting liberals in the Democrat Party and liberals in the Republican Party, now we’re having to fight to maintain credibility with the base.”

To aide in such battles, some of the groups have formed super PACs. In the summer of 2011, FreedomWorks launched FreedomWorks for America, whose funders include top conservative money men. In January 2013, Tea Party Patriots launched its Citizens Fund, which relies more on smaller donations. Some might question the grassroots, anti-elite Tea Party joining in the big-money Super PAC craze. But even anti-establishment rebels recognize that survival in this political environment requires the occasional five and six-figure check.

This time around, says Brandon, FreedomWorks has a three-pronged mission. First, the group is aiming to “upgrade” legislative seats currently held by Republicans. “For example. We can do better than Thad Cochran.” Part two is “protecting our champions.” “Where we’ve got people like Thomas Massie and Tim Scott, we’re going to protect those guys.”

Goal Three, says Brandon, is identifying the best opportunities to turn blue seats red—and here is where movement leaders can sound so pragmatic you wonder if you’ve dialed Karl Rove’s house by mistake. Budowich explains, “As the movement has matured, now it’s not just about making that stand but about creating a mathematical possibility to make policy differences.” He repeatedly stresses, “Our prime objective in 2014 is to take back the Senate. The only way we can do that is by defeating Democrats.” RINO hunting is all well and good, says Budowich, but targeting “squishy Republicans” won’t pry control of the Senate away from Harry Reid.

Brandon points to the Louisiana Senate race, where Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy and Tea Party favorite Rob Maness are battling to unseat Democrat Mary Landrieu. (The state has a nonpartisan "jungle primary," so there is no GOP nominee per se.) Landrieu is vulnerable, he says. “There are activists who may like or not like the Republican candidate, but they’re still going to campaign against Landrieu. They’re comfortable doing that.” The grassroots community has grown beyond the Tea Party, says Brandon, “and they’re very practical” about what needs to be done.

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Likewise, groups like Tea Party Express are being much more discriminating in their choice of champions, says Budowich. “We have to approach this with rational thought,” he stresses. “We have four criteria for endorsing candidates. One main criteria is, can they run a competent campaign? The Tea Party movement as a whole can’t win elections without a good solid candidate. That’s been a focus for us as we make our endorsements.” Being right on the issues is important, he says, but conservatives need to keep their eye on taking back the Senate. “That’s part of the maturity,” he asserts. “Before, you didn’t have that option. Everything in 2010 happened so fast that the races just developed before anyone really anticipated. Now, we have the time to make sure that all the candidates coming through are really the strongest possible candidates that can emerge.”

That said, movement leaders are braced for further growing pains. “It gets harder too as time goes on,” says Brandon. “The low hanging fruit is all gone now.”

Such are the complications of adolescence.