Is the Tea Party Over?
There's a new parlor game in your nation's capital, played by reporters and pundits who begin with a single question: Is the Tea Party dead? Endlessly entertaining to ponder, it's a question whose answer depends on your definition of the Tea Party movement.
Are you talking about the 900 grassroots Tea Party groups in 2010 whose numbers have now dwindled to 600? Or the movement's popularity among most Americans?
Or do you measure the "Tea Party" as a marketing plan by the right wing in its 50-year quest to bend the Republican Party to its will and bring the nation to its knees?
The new year kicked off with a poll that brought a smile to progressive faces: Rasmussen Reports, the Republican-tilting polling firm, found membership in the Tea Party movement among likely voters to have plummeted to a mere 8 percent. That’s a steep drop from 2010 when, just after the passage of the healthcare reform law, Rasmussen reported 24 percent of respondents calling themselves Tea Party members.
Even worse for those who don the tricorn hat is Rasmussen’s finding that half of the likely electorate now views the Tea Party unfavorably, while only 30 percent express a favorable opinion of the movement. So, game over, right?
Not quite. The day after Rasmussen released its numbers, Roll Call, a sort of trade publication for political types, ran a story with the title, “Tea Party Re-Flexes Its Muscle,” about the coming battles in Washington over the debt ceiling and spending, and fearsome threats by Tea Party groups to Republicans who dare to compromise with the president.
Muscle-Flexing or Rigor Mortis?
The difficulty in assessing the viability of the Tea Party movement lies in a range of available metrics that are in conflict with each other.
In the 2012 Senate races, the Tea Party failed pretty miserably, throwing its weight behind such self-immolating figures as Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin and Richard “Gift From God” Mourdock.
Yet, in the House, most of the Tea Party members elected to Congress in 2010 held onto their seats. One need only look at the fate of legislation floated by House Speaker John Boehner -- a measure dubbed “Plan B” that would have extended the Bush-era tax cuts on all but those with an annual income of more than $1 million -- to see the power of the Tea Party crowd under the Capitol dome.
How can it be that a movement rejected by 70 percent of the electorate continues to hold such power? The answer is two-fold: gerrymandering and the threat of the primary challenge.
There’s little doubt that the Tea Party movement is a bit of a mess these days, with grassroots activists sometimes shunning the label, while the astroturf groups that organized them grapple with internal tension.
FreedomWorks, until recently chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, is riven by internecine warfare between Armey and two staffers who functionally run the organization: President Matt Kibbe and Vice President Adam Brandon. ( Mother Jones has the goods, here.) FreedomWorks was instrumental in organizing protests against the health-care reform bill, and in delivering a “power center,” in Brandon’s own words, of Tea Party-allied lawmakers to the Senate in 2010, through the power of the primary challenge. When FreedomWorks chose Rand Paul to challenge Trey Grayson in the Kentucky Republican primary for U.S. Senate, it meant to send a message to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The message was heard, loud and clear, when Paul defeated Grayson -- McConnell's hand-picked choice to be the junior senator from the Senate leader's own state.
Americans for Prosperity, the other major player on the Tea Party landscape and the pride of right-wing sugar daddies Charles and David Koch, is said to be in reassessment mode after the failures of the 2012 elections. Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel and Katie Glueck report that: