Four years later, tea party’s grip wanes but influence remains

In Colorado and elsewhere, GOP struggles to retain base of voters while hoping to remain viable in general elections

Tea party rallies such as this one in Colorado in 2010 draw smaller crowds than they once did.
John Moore/Getty Images

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — Rick Fernandez noted how quiet the 30 people in a small auditorium were as they waited for Republican candidates to address the Broomfield 912 group.

“We have the rage within,” replied one man in the group, prompting murmurs of approval.

Four years after tea party and liberty groups helped trigger a national election landslide for Republicans, there aren’t the rallies and protests that drew so much attention in 2010. And many of the groups that met regularly four years ago are now dormant. In Texas’ primary on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions easily defeated tea party challengers, even as a couple of tea party candidates defeated incumbent state lawmakers.

But some of those 2010 newcomers are now more integrated into the GOP, from holding local party roles to running for office.

Still, the rage and accompanying anti-establishment leanings worry some longtime Republicans who cite key 2010 and 2012 failures by establishment candidates, propelled by the tea party.

Colorado is a prime example of those fears. Four years ago, Republicans nominated a gubernatorial candidate with no political experience but plenty of baggage, bringing a strong third-party challenge by a former GOP congressman and handing the race to the Democrats. The tea party–backed U.S. Senate candidate lost a close race after a series of verbal gaffes.

“We need to nominate candidates who are conservatives who can win,” said Dick Wadhams, who was Colorado GOP chairman in 2010. “We’ll see if that happens.”

Assimilating dissent

In Broomfield on a recent Saturday, Fernandez encouraged 912 participants to sign up to attend GOP caucuses on Tuesday. It was the first step in the process of nominating candidates for a late-June primary, a neighborhood meeting that Fernandez attended for the first time four years ago.

This time around, he’s also speaking as the county Republican chairman, a role he took over in December.

“I like to say I was a closet complainer,” Fernandez said of the time before he got involved in the liberty movement four or five years ago.

Now, the monthly Broomfield 912 meeting is the place for Republican candidates to seek support, with five candidates or their stand-ins present at the February meeting in a car dealer’s conference room.

Four years ago, about 900 tea party or patriot groups formed around the nation, said Vanessa Williamson, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University who co-authored a book on the tea party’s impact on the Republican Party. The 2008 election of President Barack Obama spurred the 2009 and 2010 activism.

“They really peaked at the midterm elections and started to decline after,” Williamson said.

When the GOP took back the U.S. House in 2010, some of that activism dissipated. In fact, even the Congressional Tea Party Caucus, founded in 2010, is defunct.

But that doesn’t mean the activists aren’t still there.

“Those people are unlikely to have dropped out of local political life,” Williamson said.

Some of that energy has been channeled elsewhere, said Francesca Subramanian, who co-founded the Broomfield 912 group.

“The movement has shifted,” she said. “People have found their niches and found other ways to contribute.”

Subramanian said she knows people who first got involved with politics through the tea party movement who are now on city councils and school boards. Fernandez said that’s a sign of growth.

“I think we’ve grown up a little as a movement,” he said. “We’ve grown up in terms of understanding the mechanics of the process.”

But many of the issues remain the same. After candidates made their pitches in Broomfield, they were asked about judges who rule in favor of same-sex marriage, “religious freedom” for businesspeople who don’t want to serve same-sex couples, jobs, Obamacare and common core education standards.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall’s re-election is vulnerable, according to recent polls, in part because of his support of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans are heartened with the recent entry of U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner into the crowded field to challenge Udall.

Tea party support helped Gardner upset a Democratic incumbent for his congressional seat in 2010, and his Senate entry is generating enthusiasm among conservatives.

“As the grassroots, we are very excited about new people getting into the race,” Subramanian said. “When the pool of candidates increases, the dialogue increases.” 

Conservative conundrum

But does the rhetoric of Republican primaries work in a general election?

While the tea party claimed great success in 2010, including taking back the U.S. House, the insurgency sometimes hurt more than helped.

In Colorado’s 2010 Senate race, Ken Buck used tea party backing to defeat his female rival, viewed as an establishment candidate, in the primary. But verbal missteps about gays and rape victims on a nationally televised debate sank Buck’s standing among Colorado women, giving Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet a narrow win.

Buck was one of four tea party–backed U.S. Senate candidates who lost general elections in 2010, compared with five Senate candidates who won. Tea party candidates fared better in U.S. House races in 2010, gaining more than 40 seats but losing almost twice as many races, according to a New York Times analysis at the time.

And Obama won re-election in 2012, while many tea party congressional candidates failed.

Wadhams said there can be a disconnect between tea party issues, especially social concerns such as gay marriage or abortion, and what matters to the majority of voters.

“Ken never made the transition from tea party candidate to general election candidate” in 2010, Wadhams said. “Nominating candidates who can’t win doesn’t get you anywhere. It sets you back.”

Nationally, Republicans are grappling with primary challenges to big-name incumbents including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Some of those challengers are backed by what Harvard researcher Williamson calls “elite” tea party groups, such as Tea Party Express, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.

Thus far this election cycle, those groups are outraising more traditional GOP super PACs, including Karl Rove’s Crossroads. Some, such as Americans for Prosperity, are creating state-level groups to activate conservative voters. In Colorado, AFP played a key role in getting voters out to recall two Democratic state senators last fall.

Uncertain future

The tea party remains synonymous with the GOP in 2014, even if there are fewer active groups than there were four years ago, Williamson said.

“It really is a fundamental piece of the Republican Party base,” she said.

But Wadhams, who is consulting for a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in South Dakota this year, said the GOP must reach beyond its base in Colorado and other swing states. The party needs to appeal to suburban women, Hispanics and young independents flocking to urban areas such as Denver.

“They’re fiscally conservative but socially liberal,” Wadhams said of some of those voters.

Katie Kellett, a 17-year-old senior at Broomfield’s Legacy High School, is an example of the sort of voter the GOP needs to attract.

She brought her parents to the Saturday morning candidate forum, and has signed them up to attend their first caucus. She created a Young Americans for Freedom chapter at her school after attending the Western Conservative Summit in Denver last year. Her presence was met with applause.

After the meeting, the group disbanded to a nearby Applebee’s restaurant. Fernandez acknowledged the delicate balance between nominating candidates who can win a general election and who also appeal to tea party and liberty groups.

“We suffer as a party because we do hurt each other,” he said. “It turns into a food fight.”

But, he added, “there are a lot of people who became disenchanted with one or another party. We have to win their trust back.”

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