A Tea Party demise? Not so

Guest post by Ronald P. Formisano

In the days before Mitt Romney’s primary victory in the Nevada caucuses on February 4, one prominent story line coming out of the Silver State focused on the inability of  Romney’s Tea Party opponents to unite behind one of his rivals. The Tea Partiers, according to several reports, were divided and worse, irrelevant. The Washington Post summarized the perceived problem with the Tea Party in its Worst Week in Washington feature this past Sunday. Two years after elevating a previously obscure state senator, Sharron Angle, to take down Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and losing, Tea Party Nevadans now were in factional disarray, dividing their support among Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich.

And the drumbeat continues today, even after Rick Santorum’s big—and surprising—wins in the nonbinding caucuses in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri. In a recently published National Journal piece titled “Failed Candidates and Faded Icons Reflect Tea Party’s Decline,” Naureen Khan contends:

 Resignation seems to be the overriding mood among tea party activists around the country. In the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections, this headless coalition of citizen-warriors—enraged by what they saw as out-of-control federal spending and government overreach—was lionized for helping the GOP capture a majority in the House of Representatives and post impressive gains in the Senate and statehouses across the country.

Two years later, there’s mounting evidence that tea party influence is on the wane, particularly when it comes to the biggest race of all.

These analyses miss the Tea Party’s continuing importance on at least two counts. First, that Mitt did quite well in Nevada among voters who described themselves as “very conservative” and reasonably well among Tea Party supporters. Among the 50,000 Republican Nevadans who participated in caucuses, Romney’s fellow Mormons joined with conservative and Tea Party voters to give him a comfortable win. Most significant for Romney, it seemed that many voters who were expected to reject him as not conservative enough were making a pragmatic choice to pick a likely winner.

Second, to claim that the Tea Party somehow became irrelevant is to overlook the way the movement has transformed the primary voting base of the Republican party, moving it to the extreme right. Every Republican debate has provided overwhelming evidence of this as each candidate—with the exception of the departed Jon Huntsman—tried to position himself to the right of his rivals by hewing to Tea Party mantras of small government, cutting spending, ending government regulations, and opposing tax increases of any kind. Sal Russo pointed out as much in the very same National Journal article quoted above:

Sal Russo, cofounder of the California-based Tea Party Express and a GOP consultant, sees a bright side in the fluctuating loyalties of tea party primary voters. He calls it evidence that all of the Republican candidates have incorporated tea party principles into their platforms. “I’m happy that it’s like fishing at a fish farm. You’re guaranteed the rainbow trout,” Russo said. “There’s four good candidates . . . and we’re happy to let the process play out.”

Add in Santorum’s explicit embrace of the Tea Party in his speech last night after winning the Missouri caucuses and we have even more evidence that we are looking at a movement that is very much alive and relevant.

Ronald P. Formisano is the William T. Bryan Chair of American History at the University of Kentucky. His book The Tea Party: A Brief History will be out next month.

(The views expressed in this guest post belong to the author and in no way do they reflect the official opinion of the Johns Hopkins University Press.)