Presidential Campaign

How the Tea Party will shape Republican debates

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There are really three disputes that have divided the Tea Party movement since its meteoric rise in 2009: disputes over strategy, values and money. As the Republican presidential debates commence, these same factors shape the messages of the leading candidates and will shape the legacy of the movement.

Strategy: Protest versus politics

What made the Tea Party remarkable in its earliest days was grassroots mobilization. Remember town hall meetings in 2009 and 2010, when budding Tea Party members peppered members of Congress with hostile questions about the Affordable Care Act? As Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson and others have documented, hundreds of local and statewide Tea Party organizations formed rapidly across the country. These organizations, many tied together by under the Tea Party Patriots umbrella, created websites, organized protests and rallied in defense of individual liberty and against President Obama — sometimes with deeply troubling, racialized rhetoric. The strategy of many affiliated with the early days of the Tea Party was decidedly grassroots in orientation and, to a certain extent, nonpartisan.

{mosads}At the same time, another wing of the Tea Party, embodied by Tea Party Express, pursued a different strategy, much more national and partisan in nature. Thus began the Tea Party’s internal dispute over strategy, which continues to this day. Should the Tea Party be a weakly coordinated mass movement that is critical of politics in general, or should it be a more centralized, traditionally conservative movement, focused on winning elections? Over the last six years, the grassroots protest movement has ebbed, while the centralized political movement has captured power in Washington. The debates will bring this dispute back into the open when Republican candidates reflect various divisions in the Tea Party movement.


The Tea Party also has substantial ideological divisions. There are Tea Party conservatives and Tea Party libertarians. While Tea Party members tend to vote for Republicans, many are independents, and some Tea Party are even registered Democrats.

The priorities differ by region. Southwestern Tea Partyers care deeply about border security and immigration, while their counterparts in the Midwest and Northeast worry more about jobs and the economy. What it means to be in the Tea Party differs greatly whether you live in Phoenix, Atlanta or Milwaukee.

Finally, some of the most interesting divisions emerge along gender lines. Tea Party men are much more libertarian, while Tea Party women are more socially conservative.


Money has been one of the animating features of the Tea Party. In the early days, most of the Tea Party groups formed in towns and cities across the country had little money and were operated by dedicated unpaid volunteers. At the same time, major national organizations like FreedomWorks and Tea Party Express served as a funnel for tens of millions of dollars in political donations and campaign contributions to support Tea Party candidates. Candidates seeking support for a primary or general election campaign could find a willing partner with plenty of resources in the Tea Party.

Republican presidential campaign and debates

These divisions align closely with what we will see during the first set of Republican debates. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker embodies the Midwestern Tea Party focus on conservative economic populism. His calling card — and the story about himself that he will promote in the debates – is about a fighter who has won pitched battles against on public unions and as part of a crusade for hardworking middle-class and working-class white voters. It is rumored that Walker has the backing of the Koch brothers, who provided so much of the money to support various aspects of the Tea Party.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, who has bragged in the past about his strong relationship with public unions, will use the debates to speak to the anti-immigration nativism and anti-trade skepticism of other Tea Party members, especially those living in the Southwest. Moreover, Trump’s eclectic partisanship — is he even a Republican? — is right at home with the assortment of party affiliations held by many libertarian and independent Tea Party men.

Rand Paul, the son of Tea Party savior Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman, will fight Trump to peal off a slice of libertarian streak Tea Partyers. On issues such as government surveillance, gun rights and even criminal justice reform, Paul will appeal to the freedom-loving members of the Tea Party who chafe at the social conservatism of the Republican Party.

And what will former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, do? While not the current leader in the polls, the son and brother of presidents embodies the traditional wing of the Republican Party. Bush’s challenge is to pull the Tea Party toward the center. It won’t be easy. Many Tea Partyers view his father and brother as fiscal liberals who grew government and increased the deficit, and Bush’s own past support for Common Core education standards and comprehensive immigration reform will likely continue to alienate him from Tea Party true believers.

The power of the Tea Party movement may have peaked in 2012, but the 2016 Republican presidential race will rehash many of the movement’s key divisions. Walker, Trump, Paul and Bush will be joined by other Tea Party favorites like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Dr. Ben Carson (R). If Tea Partyers can unify, they may well choose the nominee of the Republican Party.

Brown is an assistant professor of public policy at the City University of New York, John Jay College, and author of Tea Party Divided: The Hidden Diversity of a Maturing Movement, due out later this month.

Tags 2016 presidential campaign 2016 Republican primary Donald Trump Jeb Bush Rand Paul Scott Walker Tea Party Tea Party Express Tea Party Patriots

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