After 2012 setbacks, Tea Party struggles over need for inside influence

The Tea Party movement is reevaluating its priorities after a disappointing election cycle and conservative Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) abrupt departure from the Senate.

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Former Rep. Dick Armey’s split last week from FreedomWorks — one of the movement’s most visible groups — also highlights ongoing tensions within the Tea Party. The challenge: striking a balance between working with the establishment and working to upend it.

But activists involved at both the grassroots and more organized level said the movement’s future will hinge both on its ability to translate its small government ideals to people outside the Beltway, and to engage more actively in the political process in the future.

“You’re seeing this push from the bottom up, from the outside into Washington, D.C. to actually get a handle on those [conservative] ideas and really the intellectual basis for what we believe. The solution is not just a white paper, the solution is something that people can engage with,” said Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks.

Kibbe said that many of the group’s plans going forward, which were “already on the blackboard,” wouldn’t change in the wake of Armey’s exit. Those plans include “translating those substantive [conservative] ideas into consumable 30-second ideas,” he said. 

DeMint’s move away from the Senate to the Heritage Foundation, one of Washington’s oldest conservative think tanks, could help lead that messaging push.

The outspoken Tea Party leader is known more for his messaging skill and political acumen than his legislative accomplishments. DeMint has worked in Congress largely by attacking Republican leadership when he feels it is failing to adhere to conservative principles, and by supporting like-minded candidates in primaries to further his agenda.

Mike Gonzalez, the Heritage Foundation’s vice president of communication, said DeMint’s ability to communicate conservative ideals is part of what Heritage took into consideration in persuading him to leave the Senate.

“We like to think about how policies affect people outside of Washington,” Gonzalez said. “We need to help people connect the dots … and Sen. DeMint is someone who also thinks that way.”

Kibbe said that DeMint could be “that bridge between what I’m talking about outside the beltway, and what Heritage is doing inside the beltway.

“You’ve got to dust off some of those white papers and actually turn them into English. [DeMint] is obsessed with communicating the values of freedom, and I think we need to address those values to people outside of Washington,” he said.

The Tea Party took a beating in 2012, with only four of the 16 Senate candidates backed by the movement winning on election night.

Though the movement fared better in the House, Tea Party Caucus founder Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) barely managed to fight off a challenge from her Democratic opponent. Tea Party darling Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) was defeated despite being one of the top House fundraisers in the nation.

FreedomWorks, which spent nearly $40 million in the 2012 cycle, had less than a one-in-four winning record on candidates it backed, according to data collected by the Sunlight Foundation.

Kibbe said that the group was reassessing its involvement in the political process, with an eye on 2014 and even 2016.

“I would like to do better in 2014, and part of what we’re going to do is critically assess candidates — almost be more proactive in the recruitment of candidates,” he said.

The group will be looking for candidates that “fit our philosophical criteria and have the capacity to win statewide, and possibly national, races.”

Jenny Beth Martin, a founder of Tea Party Patriots, said her group was also looking at more engagement in the nominating process in 2014. The group’s members will be voting over the coming days on whether to form a political action committee to support its efforts, she said. 

“Having a PAC gives us more tools that we can use to fight, especially when it comes to express advocacy for or against a candidate,” Martin said. “If our competition and the opposition, the people who are not for fiscal responsibility, if they’re using all the tools at their disposal and we’re leaving some of the tools on the sideline, we may not be fighting as effectively as we could be.”

But there remains a conflict at the very base of this effort to mainstream a movement built on anti-establishment sentiment: How do the leaders of the Tea Party, and its activists, work within establishment channels without becoming a part of what they see as the problem?

Armey, for instance, was the consummate political insider during his nearly decade-long tenure in Congress.

He served as House Majority Leader and was one of the authors of the Contract With America, the GOP’s guiding policy blueprint in the ’90s. 

And yet for the latter part of his political career, he helped foster the burgeoning Tea Party and became one of the grassroots movement’s most prominent public faces.

It’s unclear whether Armey’s past in the Republican establishment created the tension that ultimately led to his exit, but he did indicate in an interview with Mother Jones, which broke the story of his departure, that FreedomWorks was going in a direction that “I thought was unproductive.”

“They were matters of principle. It’s how you do business as opposed to what you do,” he told Mother Jones.

DeMint has said he’s “coming home” to the Heritage Foundation. The think tank is known for its fiscal conservatism and small-government priorities, but it’s also one of Washington’s oldest and most established think tanks.

Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, one of DeMint’s recruits and a rising star in the Tea Party movement, has been tapped for a vice-chairmanship with the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The position puts him squarely in the middle of the establishment he toppled to win his nomination, and the grassroots that helped him do so.

It’s a dilemma that Kibbe says the grassroots movement, on which the Tea Party was founded, will have to watch out for in the future.

“The question is: Once you get [to the establishment] do you stay true to principle?” he said.