Does the Tea Party still matter?

ALBANY, NY - APRIL 13: A participant dressed as Uncle Sam attends a Tea Party Express rally on April 13, 2010 in Albany, New York. The Tea Party Express will head to Boston on Wednesday where the headline speaker at an afternoon rally will be Sarah Palin.The group will conclude its national tour in Washington, D.C. Thursday with a Tax Day rally at the Washington Monument.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's hard out there for a Tea Partier.

A year after the Tea Party movement was credited with fundamentally transforming American politics - and helping the Republicans take control the House - it faces a 2012 presidential cycle without a candidate to call its own.

The two leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, have resumes that could make a Tea Partier's blood boil. Both backed the $700 billion TARP bank bailout in 2008 that Tea Parties rail against as emblematic of the corruption of American politics. (Gingrich initially opposed the measure before "reluctantly and sadly" backing it; Romney called it "the right thing to do.") Both have backed an individual mandate for health care coverage in the past, something Tea Partiers disdain as the prime example of big-government overreach.

Gingrich is perhaps the consummate Washington insider. While the former House speaker has denied that he served as a lobbyist, he has been paid millions of dollars to broker influence in Washington, including on behalf of government-sponsored mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which many conservatives blame for the financial crisis. In 2003, he reportedly leaned on lawmakers to back the Medicare prescription drug benefit on behalf of the drug companies and industry lobbyists pouring money into his health care consulting firm. Romney's past moderation as Massachusetts governor, meanwhile, sets off alarm bells for Tea Partiers seeking ideological purity.

"Where is their candidate in this race?" Jennifer Duffy, Senior Editor for The Cook Political Report, asks of the Tea Party. "It might have been Sarah Palin, but she's not running. Where is the alternative? There isn't one."

Two contenders for that slot, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, have largely faded after short stints atop the polls; Ron Paul's small-government libertarianism would seem a good fit with many in the movement, but, Duffy says, "I'm not sure that his overall appeal is that broad, even within the Tea Party." (A November CNN poll found that 50 percent of Republicans would be displeased or upset with Paul as their nominee, significantly more than any other candidate.) Perry, for one, has tried to attack Romney over issues like TARP, but the rhetoric has largely fallen on deaf ears.

Sal Russo, whose Tea Party Express co-sponsored CNN's "Tea Party Republican Debate" in September, said his group is trying to look at the candidates' current platforms -- not their past positions.

"Our attitude is in the past, people have made mistakes and failed to grasp the significance of people's financial woes, so they did things they wouldn't do today if they had to do it again," he said. "So we sort of granted everyone amnesty over their past."

Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, is less forgiving.

"What you're seeing is an election where most people are not comfortable with the candidates," Meckler said of Tea Partiers. Asked if the Tea Party movement would turn to a third party candidate, he responded, "I don't know that there's enough support for it, but I wouldn't rule it out."

With disdain for President Obama still strong among Tea Party supporters, it seems unlikely that a significant portion would risk splitting the conservative vote in a way that would help Mr. Obama win a second term. But for a movement that unseated Republican Utah Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010 over what it saw as an unwillingness to stand for conservative principles, the prospect of lining up behind someone like Romney is a bitter pill to swallow.

Brendan Steinhauser, Director of Federal and State Campaigns for Tea Party-aligned group FreedomWorks, said his group is focused on winning the Senate, not the White House. He acknowledged that the decision was not unrelated to the state of the GOP field. "If [Indiana Rep.] Mike Pence was running," he said, "I think it would be different."

Duffy argued that the state of the presidential field suggests the appeal of the Tea Party movement is less broad than backers might like to think.

Participants display placards during a demonstration organized by the American Grass Roots Coalition and the Tea Party Express in Washington, D.C., March 16, 2010 in opposition to the health care reform bill.

"Maybe the lesson here is the Tea Party worked in certain states and certain primaries, but it's broader national appeal, even within the party, looks very limited if you base your judgments on the presidential race," she said.

The 2012 cycle may well prove to be a crucial one for the Tea Party movement, which is trying to evolve and endure even as time - not to mention the "Occupy" movement - has left it with a diminished public profile. On Tuesday, the Pew Research Center released a survey showing that the percentage of Americans who say they agree with the Tea Party movement has fallen seven points in a year; while 20 percent now agree with the movement, 27 percent say they disagree.

The Tea Party's first big test in this cycle comes on March 6, when the Texas Republican primary is held to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Tea Partiers are extremely excited about former Solicitor General Ted Cruz in that race - he's already graced the cover of conservative magazine National Review, and FreedomWorks' Steinhauser calls him "the biggest Tea Party rock star in the class of 2012." But polls suggest Cruz faces an uphill battle against a pair of better-known and deeper-pocketed competitors. (The good news for Cruz is that if he finishes in the top two - and no one takes 50 percent of the vote - there will be a runoff, giving him more time to rally Tea Party support nationwide.)

At this point, the only Senate race where the Tea Party has coalesced around a candidate to take on a sitting GOP senator is in Indiana, where Richard Mourdock has won Tea Party backing in his effort to take out six-term Sen. Richard Lugar. In other states, expected strong Tea Party challenges have yet to materialize. Maine's Olympia Snowe has largely fended off Tea Party challengers thanks in part to the backing of a governor elected with Tea Party support; the Tea Party's effort to defeat Virginia GOP Senate candidate George Allen, meanwhile, has thus far fizzled.

In states like Wisconsin, where Democratic Sen. Herb Hohl is retiring,Tea Partiers don't have an obvious candidate to rally around; in Utah, the decision by the Tea Party-aligned Jason Chaffetz to sit out the race has left the movement without an obvious candidate to take on GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has attracted the movement's ire. With Lugar positioned to potentially fend off Mourdock - the polls are tight at this point - it's possible that no Tea Party Senate candidate will score the sort of victory over the establishment that Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee enjoyed in 2010.

That isn't to say that the Tea Party hasn't had an impact. Hatch and Snowe, for example, adopted positions late in their term that helped deflate expected Tea Party challenges. Russo, of the Tea Party Express, argues that the Tea Party's success in 2010 has meant that there are virtually no elected Republicans left in government that want to raise taxes and grow the government.

"So that's why you don't have the confrontation," he said. Russo suggested that Lugar has been the only Senate Republican up for reelection who has "waved the red flag in front of the bull."

This isn't to say Tea Party anger against Washington Republicans has disappeared. House Speaker John Boehner is facing a (relatively minor) primary challenge, and even ostensible Tea party heroes like Florida's Allen West have drawn rebuke from some in the movement for their performance on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers like California Rep. Brian Bilbray and Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, are being called RINO's (Republicans in Name Only) by Tea Partiers who want to see them replaced.

Meckler, of the Tea Party Patriots, says he is "not even close" to satisfied with the performance of the GOP-led House, saying "a lot of the old guard" that remains is doing nothing more than "giving a lot of lip service to Tea Party principles." Meckler counts Boehner among that group, saying he "hasn't lived up to the things he said he was going to do."

"It takes more than one cycle, it'll take more than two cycles, to clean out that old stuff, to clean out the institutions," he said.

Yet for any political movement, "it's hard to maintain a high level of energy over the course of years," says Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. (That's something that President Obama, who is struggling to recapture the enthusiasm that drove his 2008 campaign, knows all too well.) That dynamic would seem to be especially true for a diffuse movement like the Tea Party.

Steinhauser, who is engaged in training for Tea Party volunteers around the country, said the Tea Party movement isn't fading, suggesting instead that "it's changing, it's evolving."

"We've gone from a protest movement and a get out the vote movement to a governing force in Congress and state legislatures," he said.

Yet Duffy sees a movement with less power than it had in the 2010 cycle.

"I'm not seeing the same sort of energy," she said. "... they're not freely exerting their will, shall we say, as they did in some races last time."

Duffy ties that claim to the fact that Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell lost winnable races in the midterm elections, potentially costing Republicans the Senate.

"They sent a message, but the message backfired," she said. "As a result I don't know how much enthusiasm there's going to be for Tea Party candidates."

Gonzales, of the Rothenberg Political Report, says candidates in this cycle are "trying to walk a line of having Tea Party support but not being defined by it because that could have repercussions in the general election."

"I think the Tea Party continues to be the energy in the Republican Party, but I think after last cycle being branded as the Tea Party candidate had some negative consequences with it," he said.

To some extent, the movement now faces the same sort of decision that many Tea Party-backed lawmakers faced when they got to Washington after the 2010 elections: Try to work within the system at the risk of being co-opted, or stand firmly outside it at the risk of becoming irrelevant.

Tea Party Patriot Meckler, for his part, falls squarely in the latter camp.

"In the Washington sense, we're not reasonable," he said of Tea Partiers. "Compromise has brought us to the brink of catastrophe. Maybe over the brink. So do we want more compromise in the Washington sense? No."

"We think that compromise has destroyed our nation. We are fighting for the survival of our nation," he added, before turning to his continued efforts to change Washington lawmakers - or send them packing. "If we don't push them," he asked, "who will?"