America's election and the Tea Party

A series of voting setbacks in November 2012 means the conservative Tea Party movement is now facing a difficult and divisive period, says Cas Mudde.

Cas Mudde
9 November 2012

What a difference two years make.After the congressional elections in November 2010, the Tea Party was the talk of the town. Both left-wing and right-wing media pundits declared "the" Tea Party to be the (only) winner, and all focus was on the right's new stars such as Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida. The new Republican Party kingmakers were Jim De Mint and Sarah Palin, support from whom was claimed to be essential for their fellow Republicans to get elected. It became obligatory to refer to the new legislature as "the Tea Party Congress". The fact that only one-third of Tea Party-backed candidates had actually been elected was irrelevant. The Tea Party was the new story, and all experts knew that it was here to stay.

An aptly titled Fox News story - "After election victories, Tea Party activists look ahead to 2012" - speculated about the movement's future. It seemed beyond debate that it was the newly dominant force in United States politics; the question was whether it was going to take over the Republican Party or create a third party. Within a month of the November 2010 elections the answer to that question became clear: helped by massive spending by "astroturf" organisations such as FreedomWorks, and led by members of the Grand Old Party establishment, the Tea Party was steadily integrated into the GOP. But who controlled who?

Even before the Republican primaries started for the 2012 elections, the media was unified in its narrative: the Tea Party was going to select the GOP’s presidential nominee. This narrative was strengthened by the strong, if in the end brief, showings of Tea Party favourites like Minnesota's Michelle Bachmann and former pizza CEO Herman Cain. Bachmann even gave the first-ever official Tea Party response to President Obama’s state-of-the-union address in 2011, which was broadcast live on national television by CNN! In the end, however, no Tea Party candidate could really challenge the old-school Republican-establishment candidate, Mitt Romney. The Tea Party’s influence on the primaries remained limited to pushing Romney to make very right-wing promises on issues like immigration, which would haunt him during the actual campaign.

From defeat...

At the height of the election campaign, the Tea Party was almost invisible. The campaign was dominated by the (super)-PACs of Mitt Romney and GOP establishment operatives like Karl Rove; together they spent the staggering amount of more than $310m. Even Romney’s choice of running-mate, Ayn Rand devotee Paul Ryan, was the darling more of the astroturf Tea Party boosters in Wall Street than of the grassroots Tea Party activists in Main Street. Moreover, Ryan ("Mr Budget") had to defend Romney’s much more moderate agenda on both fiscal and social issues. In fact, in almost every scandal involving a Republican candidate for Congress, which mostly related to outlandish remarks on abortion or rape (often positions that Ryan had supported in his pre-VP nominee period), Romney joined the condemnations from the Republican establishment, albeit it at times halfheartedly - even when the offending candidates were Tea Party favourites such as Senate hopefuls Todd Akin from Missouri and Richard Mourdock from Indiana.

In the event, and in virtually all ways, the 2012 elections were a total defeat for the Tea Party (a rare exception was the election to the Senate of Ted Cruz in Texas). The movement was not just unable to oust President Obama, its number-one priority, but saw some of its most prominent candidates fail in the congressional votes. Both Todd ("legitimate rape") Akin and Richard ("pregnancy resulting from rape is God’s will") Mourdock paid the price for their extreme statements. In Akin’s case this meant that the GOP lost out on a sure pick-up seat, while Mourdock was responsible for taking the Senate seat from Richard Lugar, the longstanding and well-respected Republican Senator, and handing it to the Democrats.

But even Tea Party incumbents fared very badly. Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Senator, had been for a while the very personification of the Tea Party's the power; he was handsomely defeated by Elizabeth Warren, the new hope of the American left. Two leaders of the Tea Party caucus in Congress, Florida's Allen "progressives are communists" West and Illinois's "Crazy" Joe Walsh, lost their seats in the House of Representatives (West called for a recount). On top of that, Michelle "the Founders worked tirelessly against slavery" Bachmann was only re-elected by the narrowest of margins after outspending her opponent twelve-to-one. In short, the Tea Party failed miserably, and the GOP establishment has taken notice.

...to division

What, then, do the 2012 elections reveal about the Tea Party's future? If anything, the elections show that extreme social-conservative statements are not appreciated by a majority of Americans; even among many religious and Republican voters. While astroturf Tea Party operatives claim that the Tea Party has recently been "hijacked" by social conservatives, academic research notes the crucial importance of anti-abortion and anti-immigration positions to grassroots Tea Party supporters (see Theda Skocpol & Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (Oxford University Press, 2011). In short, there is no Tea Party without (extreme) social conservatism, but there is no GOP national majority with (extreme) social conservatism.

The leaders of both factions threw their first punches on the night of the presidential count. Republican establishment leaders said that Mitt Romney had lost because the Tea Party had pushed him too far to the right in the primaries, while Tea Party leaders argued that he had not gone far enough to the right. The struggle for dominance of the GOP was on. The veteran conservative operative and prominent Tea Party figure Richard A Vigueri  boasted: "Tea Partiers will take over the Republican Party within four years."

The Republican elite seems convinced that the only way to survive as a viable alternative to the Democratic Party is to become less radical and more inclusive. Among the most vocal protagonists of a more diverse party strategy is former Tea Party favourite Marco Rubio; the Cuban-American Senator from Florida is calling for the GOP to abandon its "white strategy" and embrace America’s Hispanics, the key demographic in many (southern) Democratic states. A more ethnically diverse Republican strategy will have to include some level of support for comprehensive immigration reform, which will antagonise a Tea Party strongly nativist at local level.

It is a paradox, though, that immigration is for the Tea Party movement both strength and weakness (even if not all Tea Partiers consider immigration a high priority). If and when President Obama finally makes good on his word to enact comprehensive immigration reform, the Tea Party movement will split. The astroturf faction is mostly bankrolled by big business, which favours liberal immigration policies; while the grassroots faction is largely anti-immigration. Without financial support from the astroturf groups, and sympathetic media coverage from major outlets like Fox News, the Tea Party will be returned to its true proportions: i.e. a relatively strong local and regional force in some parts of the country, but a relatively weak force in national politics. So, the initiative is with the re-elected president.

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