Once hot, Tea Party goes cold

The Tea Party is falling to pieces.

In presidential, House and Senate races, the Tea Party is struggling to float viable and effective candidates, unify its base and dictate the terms of national discourse on the economy.

It is a harsh comedown for a movement that two years ago sent dozens of its members to Congress, revolutionized conservative grassroots organizing and forced both parties to make the national debt and federal spending their top policy concerns.

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“I think the Tea Party’s dying out as the economy’s slowly getting better,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

But the movement’s leaders are calling predictions of their demise overblown, arguing they faced the same cynicism and doubts before the 2010 midterm elections.

“The silliness has been to focus on people who wear colonial hats and have funny signs, and God bless them for coming to our rallies,” said Sal Russo, the co-founder and chief strategist for Tea Party Express. “But those are not the ones who caused more Republicans to be elected as state legislators since 1928.”

There are many indications of the Tea Party’s vanishing influence:

• It’s hard to imagine a GOP presidential candidate Tea Partiers could dislike more than Mitt Romney, but they might not have much of a choice.

“The drumbeat is that the Tea Party can’t get behind one candidate. That’s because we have a lot of good candidates,” said Russo of the GOP presidential race.

But with the movement splintered and unable to coalesce behind a single, more conservative candidate, Romney is on the verge of being the only option for Tea Party voters in November — other than President Obama.

And however reluctantly, at least some in the movement seem to have concluded that they’ll take him. Romney won some Tea Party support in Iowa, and took a majority in New Hampshire, according to exit polls. Tea Party kingmaker and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has said he won’t endorse before South Carolina’s Saturday contest, has been so upbeat about Romney’s chances in his state that some have deemed it a tacit endorsement. 

• Support for the Tea Party is ebbing across the country, according to a November 2011 study by the Pew Research Center. At the time of the 2010 midterms, 27 percent of Americans said they agreed with the movement, and 22 percent disagreed. Those numbers are now flipped.

• Headed by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), members of the House in 2010 formed a Tea Party caucus. But while the caucus has about 60 members, it has sat largely dormant, unable to play a prominent role in congressional proceedings.

• The Republican establishment, all too delighted by the Tea Party surge that helped hand it control of the House in 2010, has discovered just how difficult is to govern when a major part of its base places its allegiance elsewhere.

The most recent example was the end of 2011, when Congress debated a payroll tax cut. Tea Partiers in the lower chamber were furious with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the deal he cut. The debacle surrounding its passage gave Democrats the narrative they wanted about Republican intransigence standing in the way of middle-class tax cuts, and Republicans emerged weakened ahead of the 2012 elections.

“Some of them are taking the position of, ‘We were sent here to do a job, and if it means we do the job for two years and then get voted out of office, it’s worth it,’ ” said William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar and former adviser to President Clinton. “That creates a major problem for the Speaker.”

• There were more than 83,000 mentions of the Tea Party in the news media in 2010; that number dropped to 32,000 in 2011, according to an analysis by the research firm General Sentiment that was obtained by The Hill.

The firm also found that the Tea Party was mentioned about 970,000 times in 2011 in social media, Twitter and the news media. Meanwhile, conversations about economic inequality have partially supplanted the Tea Party’s focus on spending, and Occupy Wall Street picked up almost 8.5 million mentions in the same year.

• In congressional races, where Tea Party candidates were leading the pack in 2010, they are struggling against establishment Republicans in 2012 primary races.

The Tea Party candidate is running behind more centrist Republicans in the open Senate races in Texas and Nebraska. In Indiana and Maine, Tea Party figures hoping to challenge centrist incumbents are straining to gain ground. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) was spared a Tea Party challenge from Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R), and former state lawmaker and Tea Party candidate Dan Liljenquist seems a long shot to overtake Hatch.

Part of voters’ reluctance to back Tea Party candidates early this time around might stem from the failed gambles the party took in 2010 with risky candidates like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada, both of whom defeated mainstream Republicans in the primary, then lost to Democrats in the general election.

• Tea Party favorite Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) lost the race in December for vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference to Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a GOP establishment pick.

The Tea Party has 10 months in which to launch a resurrection of the revolt it initiated two years ago if it aims to remain a relevant and effectual force in American elections. But its leaders say the movement’s triumphs are already evident at every level of government. 

“The real winning factor is pretty much everyone is using Tea Party rhetoric. They’re talking about cutting things that have never been cut, eliminating departments that used to be sacred cows,” said Ryan Rhodes, a prominent Tea Party leader in Iowa. “As far as having a champion, the movement hasn’t had time to build one. There’s a lot coming in the future.”