Tea Party at five: Dawning or dimming?

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As the Tea Party turns 5 years old, some of its stars gathered Thursday to argue the movement is still growing and not on the wane.

Hundreds of activists met in Washington, D.C., to mark the cause’s advent, acutely aware their nascent movement faces challenges. But together, they sought to reassure themselves they’re as vibrant as ever, even in the face of building criticism.

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The event was hosted by Tea Party Patriots to mark the fifth the anniversary of CNBC contributor Rick Santelli's on-camera rant against the federal government's "promoting bad behavior" with its housing market bailouts and calls for a new "tea party" protest against President Obama, comments that many credit with sparking the movement.

Favorites like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) discussed their own upset victories and promised great things for the future. 

But their words of optimism come at a time when the movement is under intense scrutiny within the GOP after suffering setbacks in recent months. Cruz and other leaders took blame from within their caucus for the government shutdown as the Republican brand sank to record lows. 

And despite a continued push from some Washington groups to dethrone establishment Republicans, many appear to be easily cruising in their primaries, including top targets like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). 

In the face of that criticism, speakers on Thursday pushed back on the narrative that Tea Party is waning. 

“I'm a little bit confused. I could have sworn I read in The New York Times that the Tea Party was dead,” Cruz said to whoops and cheers as he began his speech.  

Both Paul and Lee suggested that to sustain itself, the Tea Party movement needed to outline a positive agenda and move beyond its initial focus on protests.  

“In order for us to be a bigger party, we have to reach out to more people, not just those of us here. It has to be a bigger party; it has to be a bigger movement,” Paul said in his speech.

“It's time for us to move beyond our mere Boston moments,” Lee said, drawing a comparison to the Boston Tea Party protests and the founding fathers’ eventual writing of the Constitution. “It's time for us to move our eyes, put our hearts and our hands towards Philadelphia.”

Paul told The Hill after his speech that it’s hard to define the movement because its membership “has always been amorphous,” but he thought it was still powerful — and in some ways, it may be growing. 

“If you define the movement as people who are concerned about the overwhelming debt of the country, I think there's still an enormous amount of people out there, and in fact, I think there are becoming more people that are concerned … I think that there's more and more the sense that things aren't going in the right direction,” said Paul. “So, if you define the Tea Party that way, I think the Tea Party is actually still there, still vibrant and still is a big influence.”

Heritage Foundation Chief Economist Stephen Moore, who spoke at the event, told The Hill the Tea Party movement needed to find that uplifting message Lee and Paul called for in order to continue to wield significant power within the GOP.

“What the Tea Party was originally about back in 2009 and '10 when it was really given birth was stopping the incredible excesses of Obama in terms of borrowing, spending. Now, I think to galvanize the movement you need really populist, positive, pro-growth initiatives,” said Moore. 

As a former Club for Growth president and one-time Wall Street Journal editorial board member, Moore straddles the void between movement conservatism and the establishment. From his perch, he warned that the internal war in the GOP is hurting the party’s prospects as a whole. 

“These fissures within the party right now are very concerning to me — you've got the Chamber of Commerce running candidates against the Tea Party candidates and so on. Competition is a good thing, but I sure hope we can come together to advance the same overall principles,” he said.

The strict ideological adherence the party still calls for clearly still has strong pull in the party. Cruz’s opposition to a clean debt-ceiling increase made it much more difficult for the GOP to allow it to pass earlier this month, and even McConnell and Cornyn had to break with their party and vote on a motion to allow the bill to proceed. Many centrist Republicans are constantly wary of crossing deep-pocketed Tea Party-affiliated groups like the Club for Growth and now Heritage Action, which help dictate policy and fire warning shots with their key vote scorecards. 

“We get asked 'what are you going to do to prove you still have momentum?' And two weeks ago, we get blamed because Ted Cruz stood up and said 'the Senate is not going to pass this by unanimous consent. It's either that we're so powerful because we're putting the establishment on record … or something else, and I don't know what,” Tea Party Patriots President Jenny Beth Martin told The Hill.

But GOP leadership and establishment business groups have begun pushing back more forcefully against the movement. The fact that both McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) were willing to break with most of their party to help increase the debt ceiling without conditions shows their frustration with the base might have surpassed their fear of it. While there are dozens of Tea Party challengers to incumbent Republicans, only Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) appear to be facing a real threat.

Martin argued just defeating incumbents was only part of what the movement needed to accomplish, though she said admitted that those races were what scared the GOP more than anything.  

“It's looking at scalps [defeating incumbents] and also looking at what do we do with open seats, what kind of people get elected there. … There are several different places where we can be measured, and we're going to engage on different levels in those different ways,” she said. "The people in D.C. will do all they can to go back to serving their own interests, unless the people hold them accountable, so even if we get scalps this time, we'll still have to turn around and have to watch and hold them accountable the two years after that."