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January 18, 2018

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Tea Party’s threat comes from within


AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Tea Party supporters gather at the “Showdown in Searchlight” rally Saturday, March 27, 2010.


As Republicans try to capitalize on what is widely expected to be a difficult election for Democrats, the Tea Party could become more of a hindrance than a help. The movement has suffered a number of public relations scandals nationally that could distract from its message.

When thousands of angry conservatives launched themselves off their couches and into the Tea Party movement last year, some Republicans viewed them as an untapped well of motivated voters who could help them oust Democratic incumbents at all levels of government.

The results at the ballot box were mixed. Many Tea Party candidates across the country won Republican primaries.

Nevada, however, has been a different story, with the Tea Party movement remaining an amorphous collection of activists. They often clash with their national counterparts and have yet to become an electoral powerhouse. Although GOP U.S. Senate nominee Sharron Angle successfully cultivated Tea Party voters and earned a national Tea Party endorsement, Nevada Tea Party activists backed one of her opponents, to no avail.

Now, as Republicans try to capitalize on what is widely expected to be a difficult election for Democrats, the Tea Party could become more of a hindrance than a help. In addition to a lack of organization, the movement has suffered a number of public relations scandals nationally that could distract from its message of fiscal conservatism and constitutional principles.

“A lot of the Tea Party’s problems are created by the Tea Partyers themselves,” conservative political operative Chuck Muth said. “They are just new and not organized and sometimes they are their own worst enemy.”

In the most recent example, Tea Party Express spokesman Mark Williams penned a racially charged blog post responding to an accusation by the NAACP that the movement includes racist elements. The post, which Williams described as satire, prompted the national Tea Party Federation to expel the Tea Party Express from its coalition and Williams to resign.

Nevada Tea Party activists joined the fight, penning a letter accusing the NAACP of having “outlived its usefulness” and labeling it “bigoted and racist.” The letter was signed by representatives of several organizations and, in a sign that not all candidates think the movement is too incendiary to associate with, also one candidate — Pat Hickey, Republican nominee to replace retiring Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno.

Other politicians are walking the line between offending conservative voters and avoiding the Tea Party label. Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., for example, declined to join the Tea Party caucus launched last week by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn, but he did so delicately.

“Congressman Heller supports the Tea Party’s efforts to create smaller government and reduce the national debt and has a good relationship with Tea Party activists in Nevada,” spokesman Stewart Bybee said. “However, he also believes that the reason the Tea Party’s message as been so effective is because it comes from outside of the Beltway and does not believe it should be institutionalized within Washington, D.C.”

Debbie Landis, head of Action Is Brewing, one of the loosely affiliated Nevada Tea Party groups, said she’s not concerned by the national scandals, which she sees as largely driven by Tea Party critics seeking to vilify the movement.

She sees greater threats to the movement from within. The danger of becoming a recognized political force, she said, is that individual leaders emerge, sometimes for the wrong reason. Landis said Bachmann and leaders of the Tea Party Federation and Tea Party Nation have selfish motives.

“People are trying to establish themselves as a leader for a personal agenda, either for profit or politics,” Landis said. “In some cases that’s not bad for the Tea Party movement. But the message that the Constitution is the only leadership the movement needs is being lost.”

The tension between Nevada Tea Party activists and their national counterparts began well before the primary.

The national Tea Party Express endorsed Angle in the GOP Senate primary. Then, days before the election, local activists banded together and endorsed New York banker John Chachas, who finished fourth in the voting. The local activists bristled at the national interference in the race.

Landis acknowledged the difficulty of organizing fired-up voters who have a natural antipathy to the establishment. She said the primary endorsements were a mistake and were more divisive than helpful.

Local Tea Party organizations likely won’t make general election endorsements, she said. That’s not to say they’ll sit this one out.

Volunteers are registering voters, and organizations are working to build a get-out-the-vote operation to identify conservative voters and educate them about candidates such as Angle and GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval, Landis said. (Despite being critical of Angle in the primary, Landis said she now fully supports her efforts to oust Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.)

Nevada Republicans sorely need such an organization.

Angle, who wasn’t expected to win the primary, is struggling to build an organization almost from scratch. And the state Republican Party is underfinanced and trying to rebuild its own ground game.

“Certainly the organization is missing,” said Eric Odom, director of the Liberty First political action committee. “There’s a big void there.”

Odom, who used to work as a conservative activist in Nevada, is organizing Tea Party activists in 15 states. Nevada isn’t one of them. He found activists here didn’t want help from national groups.

“Nevada is not very friendly to national infrastructure,” he said. “Nevada has always been a very independent state. We didn’t really like other groups coming in.”

Yet there’s an argument to be made that it’s the well-funded national Tea Party groups that have had the biggest effect here.

Odom said his group will likely fund anti-Reid and pro-Angle advertising. He credits similar efforts by the Tea Party Express for Angle’s primary win.

“Love or hate the Tea Party Express, they rallied a major part of the Tea Party movement for Angle,” Odom said.

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