Tea Party 2012: Win. Tea Party 2014: Go Home?

The Tea Party movement is looking as vibrant and influential as ever with the recent naming of Paul Ryan to the GOP presidential ticket, and the Tea Party inspired Ted Cruz victory in Texas. So how exactly did the movement evolve from one initially best known for holding events and rallies into one which is now generating upset victories and motivating establishment candidates reach out to it?

For the answer to this question, as well as what is in store for the Tea Party's future, I sought out Sal Russo, the co-founder of Tea Party Express, perhaps best recognized for their iconic cross-country bus tours. Russo has played a direct role in contributing to impressive victories this year in Wisconsin, Indiana and Texas. His answers may surprise you.

Q: Congratulations on your role in the Ted Cruz victory [in the Texas primary for U.S. Senate]. What, if anything, have we learned about the Tea Party as a result of this win?

Russo:  We sent a message. It made the press realize what we have been saying all along that the Tea Party is not dead but instead it has matured.
 
Instead of demonstrating at rallies all the time now they’re (Tea Party members) engaged in the political process. They’re are stuffing envelopes, they’re phoning…because they have learned--especially after the Scott Brown win in Massachusetts--that we can win anywhere if we get off the couch, stop sitting around and complaining and we actually work together to make change.

We (Tea Party Express) had been to Texas several times in the last two years and spent the final week campaigning with Ted. On election night as the results came in it was exhilarating.  An astounding grass-roots victory. Remember Ted Cruz was outspent 4- or 5-to-1.

Q: All year long you have been telling me that you are focused on Senate races and not the White House.  How do you think the Senate will look after November’s election?

Russo: Our goal all along has been the House and Senate seats. In 2010 we knew we had a shot at taking the gavel from away from Nancy Pelosi…But it was going to be a long haul for the Senate. We said all along that the Tea Party can’t be a two year wonder…that we have to stick around probably for six years (2008-2014). We need 2012 to take back the White House and I believe we will get majority in the Senate. But the Senate has some quirky rules and some things are difficult unless you can shut off a filibuster. So that means you need 60 conservative votes in the Senate. I think we’ll be at 54 or 55 votes (after 2012 election) but that we’re going to be short of that 60. So that’s where 2014 comes in. We can’t give up even if we win the White House and take control of the Senate, because you really need those 60 votes…So the Tea Party is three years in. We’re halfway there.

Q:  Wow. Wait a minute. Did I understand you correctly? Did you say the Tea Party probably won’t be around after 2014?

Russo: The reality is Americans are involved in a lot of things.  Involved with their kids, their communities, charities and so forth…but politics everyday is not an American thing. What happens is people get fed up and frustrated and roll up their sleeves to change things and then drift away. Then when it gets bad again they get back in…So I don’t see the Tea Party being a permanent fixture. I mean I wish it would be but being a realist once we get our country back I think people will probably drift further away.

Q: So you are saying that the Tea Party started out as a lot of rallies and sign waving, then matured into one which gets involved in the political process and ultimately will likely fade away due to its own success?

Russo:  [That’s right.] The rallies were important as a building tool for the Tea Party. It allowed people to see they weren’t alone in their frustration [at government]. When we polled members in 2009, 90% of the people said they had never been engaged in politics before. By October of 2010, 90% said they had participated in a TEA Party rally before. That’s an amazing transformation. That transformation caused the historic election results of 2010. Consider this; in 2010 we elected more Republicans to the state legislatures around the country than any time since 1928. It was historic.

This interview was conducted just prior to the announcement of Paul Ryan. You can hear my entire interview with Sal Russo of Tea Party Express HERE.


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