Why the GOP can't steer the 'tea party' bandwagon
Despite various efforts to coopt 'tea party' momentum and energy for the mainstream GOP, elections continue to show that the movement has a mind of its own.
Atlanta — John Burford represents perhaps the biggest force of this topsy-turvy election year: the "tea party" voter.
He's not thinking party. He's not thinking strategy. He's thinking about a single message he wants to send to Washington: You work for us. No one's political career is safe.
And so far, it appears that he and his tea party compatriots have stayed true to that ideal.
Like no other current grass-roots political movement, Mr. Burford and his fellow tea party folk represent a cornucopia of votes, all sitting there for the harvesting. Republicans have tried to do some of that harvesting, and a $1 million anonymous donation to the Tea Party Patriots announced Tuesday points to the attempt to convert that potential into ballots cast in November.
But recent primary results from Delaware to Alaska – where upstart, tea-party-backed candidates beat the Republican establishment candidates – continue to show that the tea party movement is not one easily guided. For November and beyond, the results suggest that the voters who sympathize with the tea party – even if they help Republicans take the House or Senate this November – can't be expected to act like GOP team players.
"What we've got to realize is that the dam has broken and there's all this pent-up energy coming out, and it's hard to harness," says Burford, a local tea party organizer in the rural north Florida town of Jennings. "The fact is, there's not a lot of real harnessing that can be done. It's going to tend to carve the river bed the way it wants to."
Of course, there is a natural cross-fertilization between conservative tea party groups and the GOP.
Groups like the Tea Party Express (which is run by a Republican marketing guru), FreedomWorks, and Tea Party Nation are tapping into Republican networks and expanding their endorsement lists, often to include more mainstream Republican candidates. Meanwhile, Sen. Jim DeMint has come forward as a veritable one-man tea party cheerleader.
The $1 million donation to the Tea Party Patriots, too, in some ways represents an effort to mainstream the tea party, some suggest. Adam Brandon, a spokesman with FreedomWorks, one of the national organizations trying to steer the tea party energy into Republican success in November, says that "the brilliance of everything you're seeing is that its strength is in its decentralization."
But grass-roots tea party activists like Burford say the influence of national groups like FreedomWorks threatens to twist the ultimate message of the tea party movement, which is to "overpower the political elite."
"We can be guided, but not harnessed," he adds.
GOP bane or boom?
In many respects, the movement stands to benefit Republicans.
A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll showed that of the 44 percent of Americans who favor the tea party, 79 percent of them want to see Republicans take control of Congress. Of those 44 percent, 56 percent say they would consider attending a tea party event, an indication of how passionate they feel about the election.
Other pollsters agree that the tea party's political engagement is high. "Even when you control for things associated with political participation, like education, income and education, people who support the tea party outparticipate people who don't support the tea party by a wide margin," says independent pollster Christopher Parker at the University of Washington.
That engagement was evident in Delaware, where tea-party favorite Christine O'Donnell upset veteran Mike Castle to win the Republican Senate nomination. In the two days after her victory she brought in more than $1 million in online donations, her website reported. Such "money bombs" – small donations from a large number of donors – have characterized key tea party flavored races.
But the tea parties' independent streak could also help Democrats in some races. In picking winners like Ms. O'Donnell, tea party voters have also chosen a few loose cannons who might be too conservative to win general elections.
A test of tea party principles
How much this comes into play will be a test of one of the tea party's core principles: a distrust of government. For their part, tea party voters seem unperturbed by politicians' personal foibles, standing by candidates so long as the candidates stand by a principled small-government message.
The question is how deep this antiestablishment mood runs in the broader electorate.
Speaking to CBS News, President Bill Clinton warned Democrats to take the antiestablishment mood seriously. "[W]e may be entering a sort of period in politics that's sort of fact free, where the experience in government is a negative," said Mr. Clinton.
"It's a fascinating dynamic that having the establishment label is the scarlet letter of the cycle," says Nathan Gonzales, political editor for the nonpartisan political newsletter the Rothenberg Report in Washington. "If you're not the establishment, people project onto you whatever they want, whatever they want you to be. They're willing to ignore significant [faults] in order to uphold their own political philosophy: that establishment is bad."
Ultimately, Republicans may feel some backlash for tea party decisions, Mr. Gonzales says. But Democrats are the ones who stand to lose the most from a movement that has – much like the antiwar movement in the mid-2000s – given energy to voters who oppose the president and his party.
"We'll wait and see if some of the tea party nominees prevent Republicans from getting majorities, but I also think Democrats mock the tea party at their own risk," says Gonzales. "[Tea partyers] are going to vote in November, and they are not going to be voting for Democrats."