Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The Tea Party may have been built by the grass roots, but to survive, it’s going to have to rely on the Beltway political machines and big-money groups it once disparaged.
Tea Party activists always worked alongside like-minded conservative organizations, but they failed to capitalize on the anti-Obama momentum in 2009 and 2010 to build their own infrastructure and war chests. That means national groups like American Majority, the Club for Growth and the Koch brothers-linked Americans for Prosperity essentially are in the position to determine if GOP incumbents face serious primary challenges.
Potential prime Tea Party targets include GOP senators up for re-election in 2014: Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Conservative activists also would love to hit back at the 33 Republican senators and 85 representatives who voted to raise taxes on the wealthy as part of a deal to avert the “fiscal cliff.”
The Tea Party “is in disarray,” said Erick Erickson, editor of RedState, a blog that helped crystallize the fiscally conservative ethos of the populist movement. Going forward, Tea Partyers will “either be within the conservative movement as part of that movement or they won’t be effective.”
Polls have shown Americans turning away from the Tea Party: 24 percent of likely voters considered themselves Tea Party members in April 2010, according to a Rasmussen survey. Now, only 8 percent say they’re Tea Party members.
Many activists have moved on while others have turned their focus to local and state fights, or become absorbed into the Republican Party. Those who remain are as divided as ever about candidates and strategies. And they mostly lack the cash and the organization to mount serious primary challenges on their own.
“There’s not enough money, and I think the movement is a little split right now,” said Billy Simons, a member of the board of the Charleston (S.C.) Tea Party.
“The grass roots are a lot more cynical than they were in 2010,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, a Georgia-based nonprofit that fashioned itself as an umbrella coalition of local Tea Party groups. “They only want to take actions that are going to have real impact, and not just something that is going to make noise for the sake of making noise.”
Tea Party activists may have “missed the moment” to build a more enduring structure that could help boost primary challenges to Republican congressional incumbents deemed insufficiently conservative on fiscal issues, said Ned Ryun, president of the grass-roots organizing outfit American Majority, which trained local activists and offered them grants and assistance in setting up their own groups.
The goal was to build a farm team of viable up-and-coming Tea Party candidates and a structure to support them, but many activists bristled because they believed their strength emanated from their organic and leaderless nature, and they distrusted anything that smacked of the Washington establishment.
“In some ways, one of the greatest strengths of the movement also became one of its greatest weaknesses because it kept them from doing the kinds of things that are necessary to build the infrastructure. It’s really a shame,” Ryun said.
“I don’t think we need some national group telling us what to do,” Simons said, citing the Tea Party Patriots as one example. “I think the Tea Party is much more effective when individuals are taking their own action. I question the motives of some of those groups; sometimes I think they’re more interested in themselves than in making a difference.”
At the same time, Simons and other activists admit that winning takes money.
“If an incumbent who’s not fiscally conservative is going to spend a million dollars, (a challenger has to) raise some reasonable percentage of those same numbers,” said Mark West, president of the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Tea Party. “If it’s going to come in from FreedomWorks, then so be it if they share our ideology.”