Are Tea Party freshmen just conventional politicians?

Tea Party activists at a rally
CBS

Conventional wisdom places the Tea Party on the radical right of the Republican Party. But a forthcoming study found that when it comes to their voting record, they are often no more conservative than other Republicans.

In a study to be released in September, Georgetown University professor of government Michael Bailey found that Republican freshmen, including freshmen endorsed by the Tea Party-aligned group FreedomWorks, didn't vote on the debt ceiling any differently than the broader Republican Party. The findings held even after taking into account factors like district demographics.

And the debt ceiling wasn't the only area where this held true.

"In fact, across a number of important votes, the voting behavior of GOP freshman endorsed by FreedomWorks was not distinguishable from their Republican colleagues," Bailey said in an email to CBS News. FreedomWorks is a Washington-based advocacy often strongly aligned with the Tea Party movement, though it also has establishment connections.

Bailey's findings suggest that despite perceptions that the Tea Party is some sort of insurgent movement, there is little daylight between the Tea Party and establishment Republicans. That cuts against the widely-accepted notion that the gridlock in Washington can be attributed in large part to the wave of Tea Party freshmen who came to Washington after the 2010 midterm elections. When it comes to voting, the study found, there are not significant differences between the Tea Party and the rest of the GOP.

"It's not whether or not they are freshman," Bailey said. "It's certainly not whether or not they were endorsed by Freedom Works. So, those kinds of labels or associations with the Tea Party are just not born out."

That's not to say the Tea Party hasn't changed politics. It may well, in fact, have moved the entire GOP to the right. Why? Because establishment Republicans have to fear Tea Party primary challenges -- and are thus incentivized preempt those challenges by aligning with the movement.

Christopher Karpowitz, a political science professor at Bingham Young University, analyzed the 2010 elections to see how the Tea Party influenced electoral outcomes. In a study released in April, he found that Tea Party endorsements helped a lot in the primaries but very little in the general election.

Indeed, the Tea Party affiliation that lawmakers adopt to survive a primary could hurt them once they get to the general election.

"If it's an even district or a district that leans Democratic and it happened to be won by Republicans in 2010, that's one that they're going to have to work harder to defend," Karpowitz said. "And if they're representatives who have a close affiliation to the Tea Party, then they would need to worry more about being seen as too far to the right or too extreme."

It's worth noting that the eleventh-hour debt ceiling vote, which held just hours before a potentially calamitous default, may not reflect Tea Party freshmen's fundamental beliefs. Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, said he would have liked tougher spending cuts in the deal, but he pointed to the Tea Party's ability to turn the debt ceiling vote into a contentious debate as a substantive victory.

"About the people who broke ranks, there's no central overarching clearing house for the Tea Party or how the Tea Party voted," Brandon said. "I'm looking at the aggregate; we kind of set the agenda. Was I disappointed with the outcome of everything? Sure, but that's something we have to continue to build on heading into these next fights."

The people who voted against the deal were members of the Tea Party Caucus and members of Congress with high numbers of Tea Party activists in their districts. These are not, by and large, the freshmen swept into power by populist anger in the midterm elections.

"They've largely been around for a while," Bailey said. "It's not the case that there's many people who were moderate in the past and then suddenly joined the Tea Party Caucus and have become pitchfork-carrying radicals. They always had pitchforks. They didn't quite have the name brand and the identity, until the Tea Party came around."

The Tea Party gave a common identity to the right wing of the Republican Party, an otherwise disorganized collection of conservative politicians. Lawmakers like Rep. Michele Bachman, who was first elected in 2006, eagerly presented themselves as the leaders of these new populist protests. Only 17 of the 88 freshmen have joined the Tea Party caucus that Bachmann formed last year.

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