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.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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"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."