The Tea Party, never an actual party so much as a brand name and a pick-and-choose list of conservative values, has launched a semi-organized push to oust the Republican Party's congressional leadership. It's not going well, but that hasn't stopped the Tea Party before. 2014 is set up as a test of the brand's fundraising clout as much as its political strength.
The New York Times thinks the current Republican rebellion might be the most significant against sitting leadership since 1938. The Senate Minority Leader and Minority whip are facing primary opponents, as are the House Speaker, Majority Leader, and a number of established incumbents. "[W]hat is startling to Republicans this year is the sheer number of candidates who are willing to take on the party’s most powerful players in Washington," the Times' Jeremy Peters writes, "and the backing they are receiving from third-party groups." Those groups include Tea Party-named groups like the Tea Party Patriots and other outside organizations like the Senate Conservatives Fund. The groups haven't yet spent much money on the races, as the Daily Caller reported earlier this month.
While the Tea Party has been bubbling within the Republican ranks for several years, it appears that this year has become a tipping point in part because the GOP leadership has realized the futility in trying to manage the Tea Partiers' more extreme positions. The Wall Street Journal, which considers 2014 to be a "test of the Tea Party's clout," quotes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: "We're done being the stupid party," he reportedly said at a fundraiser. While staffers wouldn't confirm those exact words, they said "it was consistent with the senator's view that 'we're done nominating candidates who can't win general elections.'"
McConnell is minority leader and not majority leader in part because Tea Party challengers took out establishment Senate candidates in 2010 and 2012, turning winnable senate elections for Republicans into Democratic victories. Between those losses and the Tea Party-supported government shutdown last October, both McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner appear to have run out of patience with appeasing the far-right of their party.
To the Journal, one Tea Party leader insisted that the group continued to be influential on Capitol Hill.
Jenny Beth Martin, president of Tea Party Patriots, said the group played an important role in the House GOP shelving immigration legislation. After Mr. Boehner issued "principles" guiding his plans to advance bills on the issue, the tea-party group launched a robocall campaign that Ms. Martin says connected 41,046 protest calls to the offices of 90 members of Congress.
House Republicans did put a hold on immigration legislation, though there's good reason to think that it's only on hold until these primaries blow over.
But the Tea Party's clout doesn't really stem from mobilizing phone calls. It comes from being a subset of a subset of Congress, having a few hard-right Republican members that are willing to cause trouble for Boehner and McConnell. Those members — Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Louie Gohmert, etc. — echo Tea Party orthodoxy on issues like the debt ceiling, which one Ohio Tea Partier told the Journal was what "got everyone re-energized." That energy stems from an insistence that debt ceiling increases are the cause of increased government debt — an error that Tea Party leaders either don't understand or don't admit. But the Tea Party elected officials reinforce the error to mobilize the base and the base reinforces the error to energize the Tea Party officials. It's a tiny red-white-and-blue echo chamber. The Tea Party's clout has already been tested, and the GOP has seen its boundaries, making the Republican establishment more willing to engage in the fight directly.
Anyway, if this election is meant to be another test of the Tea Party's clout, it's looking bleak. Of the races featured by the Times and Journal, most haven't been polled. But the Senate races in Texas, Kentucky, and Mississippi have, and the challengers are trailing badly.
But even getting blanked on Election Day won't quell the Tea Party. Those Tea Party groups that aren't spending money yet on these elections are, however, pulling in lots of money. To the Times, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker explained the motivation for petitions and activism meant to criticize Republican leaders: "People can raise lots of money in those shows if that’s what their intentions are." They can and do. The PAC Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, run by the same Jenny Beth Martin quoted above, raised $6.4 million last year — spending $5.3 million, all on operating expenses.
Nor is there downside for Tea Party candidates. The Times notes that the new crop of candidates, "many of them in their 30s and 40s, take a less deferential view toward their party leaders, revealing how divisions among Republicans have become ideological as well as generational." There's little question there are ideological differences, but generational challenges from younger candidates are as old as the Republic.
The Tea Party will only go away once it loses cachet, once it's not a good hook for fundraising or as a shorthand to a currently in-vogue set of principles. Like any brand, it will go out of style. But no time soon.