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 popularity of the movement 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 healthcare 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, its candidate defeated the pick of Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, in his 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:
...sources say AFP’s 2012 efforts, in which it spent $140 million on a combination of ads and on-the-ground organizing, are being reviewed as part of a broader Koch-network-wide audit that could result in funding changes in the billionaire brothers’ political operation.
Yet in the same article, Vogel and Glueck note that although AFP has reportedly let go of much of its field staff, Tim Phillips, the group’s president, says he is considering involving the group more explicitly in primary races.
While FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity and Tea Party Express are the national groups that come to mind when discussing the Tea Party, there’s another player less wed to the brand that is at least as responsible for the primary-challenge strategy that has given the movement its primary punch: the Club for Growth.
On the day after the 2012 election, four glum-looking right-wing leaders gathered before a podium at the National Press Club at the behest of Richard Viguerie, an old hand at fundraising for right-wing movements.
In his opening remarks, Viguerie repeatedly used language that wed the Tea Party to the broader conservative movement, and disparaged what he called the "Republican establishment” for lining up behind Mitt Romney as the party’s nominee.
“Far from signalling a rejection of the Tea Party or grassroots conservatives, the disaster of 2012 signals the beginning of the battle to take over the Republican Party and the opportunity to establish the GOP as the party of small government and constitutional conservatism,” Viguerie said.
As evidence of his movement’s strength, Viguerie listed a number of Tea Party-allied Republican politicians, including the newly elected Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Rep. Trey Radel of Florida. Of the 14 pols cited by Viguerie as proof of Tea Party/conservative muscle, only one, Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, was elected without backing from the Club for Growth.
A recent article by Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen reveals the Club’s role in electing what the cohort dubbed “the hell no caucus” by the reporters, by directing its largess to contested Republican primaries, and betting on the most conservative contender. From Politico:
Freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, a veteran of two wars and with a pair of Harvard degrees, got a pleasant surprise last year that helped him win a very competitive Republican primary — and then a very easy general election. It was a FedEx envelope full of checks that he didn’t ask for, from a group he hardly knew — the Club for Growth.
Tucked inside that envelope and several to come were $300,000 in checks from Club members, enough to help lift the 35-year-old former Army captain from obscurity — and 47 percentage points down in his first internal poll — to the fourth floor of the Cannon House Office Building.
Among the right-wing leaders who spoke at the Viguerie press conference was L. Brent Bozell III, who was careful to note that he appeared not in his guise as president of the Media Research Center (the post for which he is best known), but as the chairman of ForAmerica, his political advocacy organization. At the National Press Club event, Bozell articulated an agenda, characterized as mandatory for any Republican, crafted in language that appeared to come directly from Club for Growth literature -- especially the austerity plan described as “cut, cap and balance” (meaning, cut and cap spending, and balance the federal budget).
In case Mitch McConnell missed the horse’s head at the foot of his bed when his handpicked Senate candidate was vanquished by Rand Paul in the 2010 primary, Bozell’s group is now running ads accusing the Senate’s top Republican of “selling out,” according to a report by Amanda Terkel in the Huffington Post, for signing on to the deal that allows the Bush-era tax cuts to expire on the incomes of wealthy taxpayers.
The Redistricting Ruse
The gerrymandering of congressional districts is nothing new, and both parties do it. But with record numbers of governors’ mansions and state legislatures in GOP hands -- the result of decades of work by the organized forces of the right -- and the ruthlessness with which Republicans have shown themselves willing to manipulate the vote, the ritual redrawing of districts that follows the national census resulted in landscape so skewed that Republicans held onto a majority of seats in the House of Representatives even though Democrats won the majority of votes by a margin of 1.1 million.
In North Carolina, for example, it would have taken three times as many votes for a Democrat to win a House seat as it did for a Republican, according to this chart by Mother Jones’ Jaeah Lee.
With congressional districts drawn in such hyper-partisan ways, each uber-Republican congressional district becomes such a festering little petri dish of intramural competition at primary time that the launching of a primary challenge is not such a heavy lift, especially if the Club for Growth sends you a FedEx mailer full of checks. The primary becomes the real contest, since the districts are drawn to comprise mostly people who would never vote for a Democrat, meaning that these districts are made up of the most rightward-leaning voters -- low-hanging fruit for a right-wing primary challenger.
In this way, I’ve argued before, the right wing of the GOP acts as a virus on the body politic, injecting its DNA into the host body of the Republican Party which, thanks to the combination of extremely partisan redistricting and the willingness of a right-wing minority within to attack party leaders, then spreads the malicious effects of the virus to the rest of the nation.
A Brew By Any Other Name
When the Tea Party first emerged on the scene, celebrated as a bright, shiny new object by the corporate media, we at AlterNet were not taken in. This was nothing more, we said, than a new brand stamped on the same movement once known as the New Right, a force that first made its presence felt in the failed 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, and reached a crescendo in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency.
Take Viguerie. In 1961, he served as the first executive secretary of William F. Buckley's Young Americans for Freedom, and by 1965 had launched his first strategic marketing firm for the right. He went on to help found the religious right in the late 1970s, after failing to win the presidential nomination of George Wallace's American Independence Party.
Instrumental in helping Reagan win the presidency through his prowess as a direct-mail marketer, Viguerie became known as Reagan's "postmaster general." Also instrumental in Reagan's victory was the organizing of white, right-wing Christian evangelicals through the Moral Majority, a group Viguerie helped to found.
On September 11, 2009, the day before the Tea Party movement first took to the streets of Washington in a show of force, Viguerie was already on the scene, in a Washington, DC, hotel meeting room, conducting a free workshop in political organizing for Tea Partiers who had come to town for the march. Attendees were given a bright yellow nylon drawstring sack emblazoned with the "Don't Tread on Me" snake of the Gadsden flag, and a free copy of Viguerie's book, America's Right Turn.
He's just one of many right-wing leaders who saw the potential of the early Tea Party protests as a rebranding vehicle for the right. Dick Armey, sitting at the helm of FreedomWorks, surely did, as did Americans for Prosperity's Tim Phillips, the former business partner of Ralph Reed, who served as executive director of the Christian Coalition during that group's heyday. And a PAC once known as America Deserves Better renamed itself the Tea Party Express.
So, is the Tea Party dead? The brand itself may be on the wane, but the forces that made it strong have not gone away. After all, there's money to be made in consulting fees and big-ticket salaries at the top of the right's non-profits. (Sen. Jim DeMint recently left the U.S. Senate to take the top post at the Heritage Foundation, where he will reportedly earn $1 million per year.)
And there's still work to be done in purging the Republican Party of any politician who might wish to strike a deal on anything that might be beneficial to the broadest base of the American electorate -- work that Viguerie and his allies have been doing for the last half-century.
"The battle to take over the Republican Party begins today, and the failed Republican leadership should resign," Viguerie said at his press conference the day after the American people re-elected President Barack Obama. "But of last night’s disaster comes some good news, however; conservatives are saying never again are we going to nominate a big-government, establishment Republican for president. And what’s more, we won’t have to."
Call it the Tea Party, or call it something else, the right has gotten its hooks into the body politic, and it's not letting go anytime soon.