Inside the Tea Party Movement
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Tea and the GOP

By Jessica Chasmar (6/21/11)

As we saw in the November election, the Tea Party has been particularly powerful in its attacks on perceived “RINOs” (Republicans in name only), such as moderate Republicans Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Delaware’s Mike Castle. These Tea Party victories gained national attention and speculation from people on all sides.

Luckily for Republicans, the Tea Party Movement refused to create a third party during the midterm elections that could have split the conservative vote and created a permanent left-wing majority in Congress.

But what we’re seeing now in the GOP is a war between the moderate and conservative Republicans: There are the Bush Republicans of the late 2000s, who became disillusioned by the rise of domestic spending. There are the fiscally conservative Republicans of the Tea Party, who see the rise in spending and lack of corporate accountability as contributing to the disintegration of the economy. And there are the libertarians, many of them disavowing Republicans, who broke off from the GOP because of its stance toward social policy issues, such as abortion rights and gay marriage.

According to Gainesville Tea Party President Laurie Newsom, the failure of the Republican Party to protect the three values that the Tea Party stands for — “limited government, fiscal responsibility and a free market” — is what got her involved in the movement.

The House Tea Party Caucus was launched in July 2011 by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who said in a statement to POLITICO that Americans have “had enough of the spending, bureaucracy and the government-knows-best mentality running rampant today throughout the halls of Congress.” In an interview with The Daily Caller, Bachmann said the idea for the caucus originated when Republican Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul said he would form a Tea Party Caucus in the Senate if he won that November.

The caucus currently consists of 52 Republican members, including Fla. Rep. Cliff Stearns, and it held its first event late last year.

According to Kenneth Vogel, reporting for POLITICO, the Congressional Tea Party Caucus is part of the solution for Republicans trying to channel grass-roots conservatism. However, instead of embracing the caucus, many Tea Partiers see it as yet another effort by the GOP to hijack their movement.

The inaugural meeting commenced Jan. 27, 2010, without three of the senators who won elections under the Tea Party name. Sens. Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) may have rationalized that they would stand a better chance of advancing their ideas from within the Senate establishment, but Rubio told The Washington Post the reason he was not joining was because he didn’t want politicians in Congress “co-opting the mantle” of the grass-roots movement.

On Feb. 4, 2010, Rubio made an appearance on the “Trey Radel Show” and said, “My fear has always been that if you start creating these little clubs or organizations in Washington run by politicians, the movement starts to lose its energy.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) warned that the caucus may be seen as trying to “co-opt” the movement and questioned the motivations of its members.

"I’m 100 percent pro-Tea Party, but this is not the right thing to do," Chaffetz, who declined to join the caucus, told POLITICO last August. “Structure and formality are the exact opposite of what the Tea Party is, and if there is an attempt to put structure and formality around it, or to co-opt it by Washington, D.C., it’s going to take away from the free-flowing nature of the true Tea Party Movement. If any one person tries to become the head of it, it will lose its way.”

The new caucus has allowed some Democrats to jump on the opportunity to link Republicans in Congress with the Tea Party, especially during the midterm election period.

"The Republican Party agenda has become the Tea Party agenda, and vice versa," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said at a news conference late last July. Fla. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, now chairwoman of the DNC, later echoed those sentiments on MSNBC’s “The Place for Politics.”

The truth is, the caucus could give legislators a chance to claim they’re part of the Tea Party Movement without holding to its ideals, trying to appear more conservative than they really are. The country has been leaning more right in the past year or so and moderate Republicans have been forced to adapt to that trend.

A Rasmussen poll conducted last month on 1,000 likely voters found that voters see the “Tea Party” a bit less negatively as a political label these days, while the terms “liberal” and “progressive” have lost ground even among Democrats. “Conservative” remains the most favored description, with 42 percent of likely voters saying they view it as a “positive if a candidate is described as politically conservative.”

Republican legislators could be skeptical about aligning with the Tea Party Caucus for three reasons: 1) They genuinely care about the organics of the Tea Party Movement and want to protect its grass-roots feel, 2) They feel they would be more useful in the already established GOP, or 3) They fear aligning themselves with the perceived “extreme” right.