The death of the "tea party" has been reported breathlessly for over a year. With the election of a GOP House, the large rallies and protests receded from the public square and the number of people attending local tea party meetings has fallen in many places. The media have seized on this and various polling data where relatively few people identify themselves as a "member" of the tea party to assure itself that the movement has lost its steam. But, election results this year indicate the movement is very much alive and set to play a pivotal role in the November elections.
This morning, my colleague, Tony Lee broke down the latest poll in tomorrow's Senate run-off in Texas, finding tea party-backed candidate Ted Cruz surging to a 10-point lead over establishment GOP Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Polling in special or run-off elections can be tricky, since it can be hard to estimate who will vote in a relatively low-turnout election, but it is clear that the momentum and enthusiasm is giving Cruz a big edge.
Cruz is an excellent candidate with a very impressive background. From my vantage point, he seems to have run a very good campaign, timing his surges at exactly the right moment. His main opponent, Dewhurst, had the backing of every major Republican in the state, including popular governor Rick Perry. He had been winning elections in Texas for decades and had all the money a campaign could ever hope to spend. Yet, he is very likely to lose.
Cruz's surge is just the latest example of tea party and grass roots activists lifting a challenger past strong, establishment-backed candidates. Rep. Jean Schmidt was routed in her primary in Ohio. Sen. Dick Lugar lost in a land-slide against state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Little known state Senator Debbie Fischer defeated two strong, experienced politicians in Nebraska's senate primary. Even Sen. Orrin Hatch, who survived a tea party challenge, only did so by reinventing himself over the last year and a half as a strong conservative who picked every possible fight with the Obama Administration. The list goes on.
The tea party rallies are gone, because there isn't really a need for them anymore. The election of the GOP House, in essence, cauterized the wound, and provided some assurance that at least really bad policies weren't going to get enacted before the next election. But the voters who attended those rallies are still there and, when elections come around in their states or cities, they are showing up in droves. You also see this in the widening enthusiasm gap between GOP and Democrat voters.
Both sides get hung-up a bit on the "tea party" label. There isn't a tea party, per se. What is there is a group of Americans who are newly politically active. The left-ward lurch of the Democrat party has awakened them. There are driven by concerns over the economy and government spending and, on these issues, their views match-up with conservatives. This year's primaries have shown the rumblings of the voter wave that swept the GOP into power in 2010. It will leave its mark in November, especially in critical down-ballot races.
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