Tempest in a Tea Party
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
Anyone who is following the 2010 midterm elections knows that tea party activists are angry, motivated and determined to create a low-spending, low-taxing Congress. It's anybody's guess just how successful they will be. But an equally compelling question is just what impact the movement will have on gubernatorial and other state elections this fall.
Dale Robertson, president of Tea party.org, admits that his movement is thinking more about Washington right now than about the states. But he is trying to shift that emphasis a few degrees. "We are trying to focus on the state races," he says. "We are getting candidates set up every day."
Both parties are taking tea party activists seriously and are wary of offending them — if they are not already actively wooing them. Just look at the governor's race in Ohio. Republican gubernatorial candidate John Kasich openly touts his tea party credentials in his bid to defeat incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland. "I think I was in the tea party before there was a tea party," Kasich famously told a Columbus crowd earlier this year. "This is a real movement with a real message about people's frustrations by broken promises that leaders on both sides of the aisle would be foolish to ignore," he went on to write in a blog posting.
For his part, Strickland says he agrees with some of the very same things that upset the tea party folks, including high taxes and inefficient government. "I would ask them to evaluate my performance, and I think there is much they could find positive," he said while he was in Washington in February, noting that he has cut taxes and reduced state government by more than 5,000 employees.
The Iowa Tea Party doesn't have a candidate in the race between incumbent Governor Chet Culver, a Democrat, and former Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican who is leading in some polls. "We don't have the money," says Ryan Rhodes, a party activist in Des Moines. But the tea partyers have a candidate for secretary of state in Matt Schultz, a Republican city councilman from Council Bluffs, who hopes to unseat incumbent Democrat Mike Mauro.
Schultz will first have to beat two opponents in the June 8 Republican primary in a race that party insiders say will be competitive. Schultz, a life-long Republican, calls himself a tea party member because "the Republican Party has strayed away" from fiscal conservatism.
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a GOP strategist who helped engineer the Republican takeover of both chambers of Congress in the 1990s, sees an important role for the tea party movement in what he hopes will be a GOP comeback in 2010. "Republicans have a huge obligation to reach out and include the tea party activists because they ought to be with us. And if they're not, it's our fault," he told a roundtable of reporters last month as head of the Republican Governors Association .
Barbour compares today's tea partyers to the supporters of Ross Perot who rallied behind the Texas businessman's crusades against deficits and free trade as an Independent candidate during the 1992 presidential election.
"The worst thing that could happen to the conservative movement and the best thing that could happen to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party would be is if any substantial number of tea party voters became a third party," Barbour said. "Why split up the conservative vote? We can all work together."
But some tea party activists aren't buying it. "If the Republican Party were actually providing constitutionally conservative candidates, then it wouldn't be an issue, but when you look at both parties they seem to be more of the same," says Robertson of Tea party.org. "The only reason the tea party exists today is because the political parties have lost track of their platforms."
In West Virginia, Elliot Simon, who has been both a Democrat and Republican, is now a tea party candidate running for a seat in the state House of Representatives. He calls Barbour's comments "political strategizing." He says the tea party's basic tenets of lower taxes and less government fit better under the Republican banner but that anyone is welcome who stands behind the movement's principles. He insists "we're not a radical movement ... We are very mainstream."
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, says that liberals who call the tea party "`kooky right-wing crazies' seriously mischaracterize the movement." Madonna's latest poll shows more voters in Pennsylvania were likely (45 percent) than unlikely (34 percent) to vote for a candidate who supports the tea party movement's goals. To Madonna's surprise, nearly a quarter of Democrats said they were somewhat likely or very likely to vote for a tea party candidate. "I think they are under-estimated," he concludes.
Delaware Governor Jack Markell, who heads the Democratic Governors Association , says Democrats' message to tea party supporters will be the same as the party's message to everyone else. "We are going to fight for every single job and we are going to do our best to ensure every single dollar of taxpayer's money is spent wisely," he said last month. "I guess there will be some tea party activists that don't like that message and that's fine. We are never going to get everybody on board."
Tea party candidates failed to deliver many knockout punches in the two states that have already had their primaries. In Illinois, Republican and tea party activist Adam Andrzejewski got 14 percent of the vote for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, coming in fifth in the Feb. 2 GOP primary. In Texas, Republican gubernatorial hopeful and tea party activist Debra Medina was polling strongly until her appearance on the Glenn Beck radio show, where she refused to take a position on whether the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Medina finished third with 18 percent of the vote in the March 2 primary.
But at the legislative level in Texas, David Simpson, a tea party candidate, beat Republican incumbent state Rep. Tommy Merritt in a bid to represent Longview in East Texas. And an April 13 runoff will decide if another Republican tea party candidate, Charles Perry, will unseat GOP Rep. Delwin Jones, who has been in the Texas Legislature for nearly three decades, in a contest to represent Lubbock.
It's too early to tell whether tea partyers will be spoilers or kingmakers in important state elections this year. But their mere presence in a campaign could force candidates of both parties to make more detailed statements on spending, state sovereignty, gun rights and illegal immigration, and may very well shake up key statewide races.
And then there is the issue of voter turnout. Tea party activists in Texas are taking credit for the record number of voters who showed up for the GOP gubernatorial primary in March. Dennis J. Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University, says there's a simple reason. "Angry people turn out to vote," he says.