Some local tea party groups (in Massachusetts, for example) have divided over divergent priorities — whether to make conservative economic principles or conservative social issues paramount. Others, such as the Tennessee Tea Party, have disbanded altogether.
In researching her recent book, "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism," Harvard professor Theda Skocpol found that about 1,000 local tea party groups formed in 2009-2010. Today, she estimates there are about 600. A declining number, yes, but still what Skocpol, an expert on civic engagement, calls "a very good survival rate."
"They're not dressing up and going to demonstrations in the street. They're meeting. They're poring over the legislative records of these Republicans that they've elected. They're contacting their representatives, and they're keeping the pressure on. They're following the debates, and they're going and they're voting.
"They're determined," she says, "and they haven't gone away."
To weigh the continuing success or influence of the tea party by inside-the-Beltway measures — endorsements, numbers of chapters and "constituents," dollars or even wins or losses at the polls — is to miss the point and ignore the power of the movement today, says Skocpol. That stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the tea party was and is.
It was never an "it," a party with a capital "P'' in the sense of a third political party, though at one point some tea party insiders may have toyed with the idea and outsiders treated it almost as such. (Consider CNN's decision to televise the tea party response to President Obama's 2011 State of the Union address.)
Rather, it is an ideology and a style of politics — one that "has been in the business of pulling the Republican Party away from the possibility of compromising with Democrats and further toward the hard right," says Skocpol. "And they've been very successful. ... They've taken over the Republican Party, lock, stock and barrel."
Elizabeth Price Foley, a constitutional law professor and author of "The Tea Party: Three Principles," calls the tea party "the new Republican base." ''That causes a lot of people who want to dismiss the tea party to characterize them as puppets of some great wealthy conservative puppet masters," she says. "If anything, the tea party is the one who is moving the mountain. The mountain being the Republican Party."
This was on full display during last summer's congressional debt debate, when House tea partyers forced Republican Speaker John Boehner to postpone a vote on legislation to raise the debt ceiling and hastily revise it to add a balanced-budget provision, pushing the government to the brink of default. It was just one example of the strength exerted by newly elected tea party Republicans advocating a tough no-compromise mantra. Earlier, they drove House Republican leadership to rewrite a budget bill to find more spending cuts.
Today, tea party activists are still hard at work promoting a conservative ideology at all levels of government, in part by targeting longtime GOP incumbents deemed not conservative enough. Take this year's congressional races. Though no one expects the type of gains seen in 2010, national tea party-related groups are backing candidates in vital races as part of an effort to not only keep GOP control of the House but possibly gain control of the Senate and move Congress more to the right.
Already, in what some have dubbed the first upset of 2012, an incumbent congresswoman in Ohio has fallen to a tea party-backed challenger in that state's primary. Still to come are the two high-profile primaries featuring tea party targets Orrin Hatch of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana, the two most senior Republican members of the Senate.
FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C.-based group that provides both money and training for tea party activists and candidates, has spent some $650,000 opposing Hatch, whom the group calls "the consummate Washington insider" with a record that "is decidedly opposed to the goals of the tea party" — in part because he voted for the Wall Street bailout in 2008.
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