With business-aligned Republicans bent on curbing the Tea Party’s influence, leaders of the small-government movement’s two largest groups are taking a more professional approach.
They’ve added a super-political action committee, which can raise unlimited money, to their arsenal. They are targeting races in Republican-leaning states to reduce the odds of Democrats picking off a seat. And they’re vetting candidates more carefully, rather than supporting those who simply claim to be part of the movement.
“We’ve now been through a cycle with wins and a cycle with losses, and you learn from both of those,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, a group based in the Atlanta area. “We can go into 2014 with a foundation of understanding of what we’re up against.”
Such restraint may be vital with control of the U.S. Senate on the line. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the chamber. Half of the party’s 12 incumbents up for re-election this year face primary challengers, many of whom are Tea Party enthusiasts. Business leaders in Texas and Kentucky are rallying behind the incumbents, whose re-elections are safer bets. That leaves little room for error.
The movement celebrates its fifth anniversary next week with a Tea Party Patriots event in Washington, where small-government activists have installed and won powerful allies. They helped force a partial government shutdown in October after House Republicans refused a budget compromise that didn’t include a repeal of President Barack Obama’s health-care law -- a proposal that would have died in the Senate.
To enhance its impact this year, the Tea Party Patriots, a nonprofit with more than 1,000 local affiliates, started a super-PAC that raised $6.4 million in its first year to spend on congressional elections.
The other major movement group, the Tea Party Express, based in Sacramento, California, is steering clear of some Republican primaries. The group, known for rallies and bus tours, isn’t backing Matt Bevin’s challenge in Kentucky to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after concluding that he may falter in a general election against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.
“Sometimes we have to do what our supporters want, and on the other hand, sometimes we have to provide a little leadership,” said its chief strategist, Sal Russo. “Looking at the national field, there are not a lot of insurgent candidates out there with what it takes to get elected. We’re going to be choosing wisely.”
Groups using “Tea Party” in their names have raised at least $70 million since 2009, a review of Federal Election Commission reports and tax documents shows. The Tea Party Express and Tea Party Patriots together account for about 90 percent of those receipts.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business trade group and one that has vowed to protect Republican allies from Tea Party challenges, spent roughly the same, about $66 million, on political messages during the same period.
The movement’s reach extends when the financial prowess of its Washington-based allies, including FreedomWorks, Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action for America and Americans for Prosperity, are added to the mix. They’ve raised $300 million or more since 2009.
That alliance isn’t without weaknesses.
The two dominant Tea Party groups have a history of animosity that includes lawsuits -- one of the Patriots’ founders, Amy Kremer, defected to Tea Party Express in late 2009 to work with Russo. She has a pending defamation lawsuit against her former group.
In addition, their well-funded allies are in some ways undermining the intentions of Martin and Russo. FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund are promoting Bevin in Kentucky and other candidates who could lose to Democrats even with the Tea Party Express and Tea Party Patriots taking a more measured approach. A local Tea Party group is also backing Bevin.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, downplayed such differences. “There’s a lot more power in decentralized chaos than there is in empowering some sort of head of the movement,” he said.
The Tea Party, a political identity used by thousands of different groups that answer to no one, began in February 2009 with anti-tax rallies across the nation. In August of that year, Tea Partyers crowded congressional town halls to object to Obama’s health-care proposal as a government intrusion.
After the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010, their anger helped Republicans win the U.S. House majority.
Republican fortunes shifted in 2012, when Obama won re-election and Tea Party-backed candidates cost Republicans enough Senate seats to quash the party’s quest to regain the chamber’s majority. Among the casualties was Indiana Senator Richard Lugar. He lost a primary fight to Richard Mourdock, who then lost the general election to Democrat Joe Donnelly.
The loss in Indiana -- a competitive state for Democrats and Republicans -- contrasts with a 2012 Tea Party victory in Texas, a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.
There, Senator Ted Cruz coasted to general election-victory after defeating Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. Dewhurst had been backed by business organizations and Texas corporations, while Cruz counted Tea Party groups as some of his top donors.
Cruz’s win in a Republican-leaning state became a model for this year’s contests, in which Tea Party challenges are generally popping up in states where the party has an edge. In Mississippi, a solidly red state, the Tea Party Express and other groups are backing Chris McDaniel, who’s challenging six-term incumbent U.S. Senator Thad Cochran.
Since its start, Tea Party Express, one of the first national groups, has held 400 rallies and eight national bus tours, picking up as a prominent fan Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate.
Tea Party Patriots still holds weekly conference calls to coordinate grassroots groups from Texas to Maine, as it has since the movement began. Last week, it raised a record $500,000 in small donations in a “moneybomb” drive for Internet donations, said spokeswoman Diana Banister.
The Tea Party’s challenges grew more complicated after Cruz’s tactics in Congress helped prompt the intra-party fight.
He spearheaded the government shutdown and has picked other battles with fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill, including forcing McConnell and other senators facing primary challengers to take an unpopular vote on Feb. 12 lifting the nation’s debt ceiling.
House Speaker John Boehner said of some Tea Party groups in December, after they unsuccessfully pushed Republicans to reject a budget plan, “They’ve lost all credibility.” Boehner, an Ohio Republican, specifically called out the political groups associated with the Tea Party: “They’re using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals.”
The tug-of-war with the Tea Party is a “fight for the heart and soul” of the Republican Party, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is facing primary challenges to his re-election, said in a December interview.
Tea Party Patriots, which expects to soon begin endorsing candidates, will be active in South Carolina, Martin said, at least to “get the word out” about what she said is Graham’s pro-spending record. South Carolina Tea Party affiliates will determine whether the Tea Party Patriots should back one of his opponents.
Russo said Tea Party groups need to keep a sharp eye for winning candidates, more in the style of Cruz than Mourdock. That’s why, he said, Tea Party Express stayed away from an Alabama House race last year when business-backed Bradley Byrne edged out a candidate who vowed to “be like Ted Cruz.”
“You can’t just be ‘Tea Party,’” Russo said. “You still need all the elements to have a successful campaign.”