Washington • Five years ago, some protesters tied tea bags to their hats, others chucked tea into rivers and the yellow Don’t Tread on Me flag found new life. The tea-party movement was born.
Last week, conservative activists gathered in Washington for an anniversary celebration, praising their progress in knocking out old-guard Republicans and forcing spending cuts.
But while the party was heralding its first five years, questions remain whether it will be around for its 10th anniversary. Polls have shown a drop in support, and GOP elders are trying to tamp down tea-party candidates they fear could foil Republican attempts to retake the Senate.
“We’re always going to have very strong conservatives that are actively involved, but their success is going to wax and wane with the circumstances,” says Quin Monson, director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. “There is some element of the tea party that is not going to go away but there are people who will tire if they don’t succeed.”
The height of the tea party came in 2010, when conservative candidates — like Mike Lee of Utah — harnessed the anger over government largesse to propel themselves to Congress. Fears over the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, then helped fuel rallies and pack town-hall meetings.
“They had a clear, identifiable opponent to help them mobilize,” Monson says.
But Obamacare passed and is now being implemented, and while the dissatisfaction with the federal government is still high, the rallies have dissipated somewhat and the tea party isn’t enjoying the same clout it once had. Sen. Orrin Hatch’s re-election in Utah in 2012, for example, poured a little water on firebrand efforts to oust long-standing members of Congress.
A Gallup poll in December showed for the first time since the movement started that a slim majority of Americans now view the tea party unfavorably, and the number of people who identify themselves as within the tea-party fold is at one of its lowest points yet. Some 22 percent of Americans say they support the tea party while some 24 percent consider themselves opponents of the effort.
Staying the course • But it hardly felt like stalling momentum for the conservative movement during the recent bash in Washington. Some of the cause’s big stars wowed the crowd with speeches designed to whip up anger at Democrats and even Republicans.
President Barack Obama’s push for stimulus spending in 2009 may have spawned the modern-day incarnation of the tea party, and his health-care reform effort solidified a base of tea-party voters, but those at the five-year anniversary gathering said their fight is still getting started.
“I’ve got good news for you, though, and bad news,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told the raucous crowd on Thursday. “The good news is your government is open; the bad news is your government’s open and still borrowing over a million dollars every minute.”
As he has in recent speeches, Utah’s Lee said that there are a growing number of members of Congress who are working to push the tea-party agenda, and now the effort needs to transition into a movement for something, not just against anything coming out of Washington. He likened the tea party to the original Boston revolt in 1773 that ended with a new government formed in Philadelphia, noting that the modern tea party needs to transition, too.
“We will continue to protest against the kind of national government we don’t want,” Lee said. “But it’s time for us also to move our eyes and our hearts and our hands toward Philadelphia.”
The tea-party movement can claim some credit for moving the needle in the politics of Washington. While the 16-day government shutdown last October didn’t succeed in killing funding for Obamacare, Congress’ most ardent conservatives were able to push fellow Republicans — for a time — into doing their bidding.
Lee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz were the architects of that plan and Lee doesn’t regret it.
“It is always worth it to do the right thing,” he said at the time.
There are plenty of Utahns who agree, though not as many as there once were.
Fading fervor • In October 2010, some 56 percent of Utahns held a favorable opinion of the tea party while just 37 opposed it, according to the Utah Voter Polls conducted by Monson’s center. The support began dropping after 2011 and by last November only 34 percent of voters in the poll said they favored the tea party. Sixty percent had an unfavorable opinion.
The same trend was seen among the movement’s active supporters. In late 2010, 26 percent of Utah voters identified with the tea party. By last November, that had declined to just 10 percent.
Even among the most active Republicans — those who run and serve as delegates at the state GOP Convention — support has dwindled. In 2010, 85 percent of delegates backed the tea party, compared to 57 percent in the 2012 convention, according to the BYU center’s polling.
David Kirkham, the owner of Kirkham Motorsports who organized the first Utah tea-party event in mid-March 2009, says the effort has shifted to some degree but still resonates with a large group of Americans. It’s not about flowing into the streets to be heard anymore. “We’re not in the streets — we’re in [policy makers’] offices,” Kirkham says.
If the tea party can distance itself from rants about social issues — specifically gay marriage — and keep the focus on paring back the government, Kirkham says, it will not only survive but thrive.
“We are going to be the party who includes people who just want to be fiscally responsible,” he says. “What’s going to happen is that they’re going to be able to capture the center. Nobody likes the extremes; no one likes Nancy Pelosi or the right-wing extreme either.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who fancies himself an original tea partier, said the movement will be alive at least as long as Obama is in the White House. The next presidential election will determine if the effort gains new vigor.
“I don’t think the frustration has waned at all,” says Chaffetz. “The movement is representative of a very conservative approach to smaller, less-intrusive government. I think that has grown and expanded and it certainly has not gone away.”
Chaffetz chalks up the drooping polls to people not wanting to label themselves and says the news media isn’t focused on the effort as it once was. But he says people are still vocal and will continue to be.
“I certainly hear from them,” says the congressman. “They have my number.”