When news stories falsely reported that 19th century humorist Mark Twain had died, he replied that they were greatly exaggerated. So it seems with the tea party. It is not quite dead.
Obituaries for the tea party have been rampant in the past six months. Pundits reported that since tea party candidates had failed to knock off Republican incumbents in Idaho, Oregon, Georgia and Kentucky, the tea party was on its way out of American politics. One GOP pollster declared that the “balance of power is shifting back to the mainstream conservative wing of the Republican Party.” Commentator Stuart Rothenberg wrote that “it’s already clear that the pragmatist conservatives have stopped the anti-establishment’s electoral momentum.”
But, just like Mark Twain, the tea party demonstrated it really isn’t dead after all. Last week, a tea party candidate was able to unseat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a stunning upset. Now, establishment Republican candidates are becoming nervous again. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, is the next major target of the tea party. He came in second in the GOP primary earlier this month and faces a tough re-election battle in the runoff next Tuesday. A recent poll puts tea party challenger Chris McDaniel eight points ahead of Cochran.
It is likely that the obituaries about the tea party written before the Cantor loss were the result of wishful thinking. In 2012, tea party Republicans lost competitive races in Missouri and Indiana. Establishment Republicans certainly do not want to repeat that performance. They fear that tea party candidate wins in key Democratic pickup states would weaken chances at recapturing the U.S. Senate.
Indeed, the fight for the soul of the Republican Party is far from over. The tea party will be emboldened by the Cantor loss and work harder to defeat establishment candidates. The tea party has not exactly been moribund this year anyway. It had significant successes before the Cantor loss. Tea party candidates bested establishment candidates in Nebraska and Texas, including the defeat of the oldest member of Congress as well as a lieutenant governor.
My guess is the tea party is deepening, but not broadening, its support. A Gallup poll released last month showed tea party support among the public, and Republicans in particular, was at its lowest point in over four years. Today, only 41 percent of Republicans support the tea party, compared with 61 percent four years ago. Nevertheless, the remaining tea party supporters are likely the activists who believe that the tea party still has work to do to achieve significant policy changes in American government. Not surprisingly, the same poll showed that tea party Republicans are more enthusiastic about voting this year than are their more mainstream GOP counterparts.
Moreover, the tea party makes gains even when their favored candidates don’t necessarily win. For example, some traditional conservative Republican candidates have sought the active endorsement of the tea party by endorsing tea party-issue positions. Two such candidates are Ben Sasse, who won the U.S. Senate GOP primary in Nebraska, and Jodi Ernst, who did so in Iowa. Both successfully courted support from establishment Republicans as well as tea party supporters.
And the tea party has high-profile potential presidential candidates carrying the banner nationally. Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio not only gain attention for the tea party, but also provide tea party supporters with people to rally around in 2014 and 2016. The prospects for these three young senators to run for president means the tea party will have leaders for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, the tea party is based on widespread public dissatisfaction, particularly among Republicans. A recent Rasmussen poll showed that at least two-thirds of Americans (and 86 percent of Republicans) believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. The tea party has a lot of public unhappiness to tap into. How successfully it can do so remains an open question. Nevertheless, with the support of tens of millions of Republicans and the existence of 2016 GOP candidates to carry the flag, the tea party is likely to continue to try for some time to come.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.