What's the Tea Party all about?

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 14, 2010 

When the tea party movement rose in early 2009, it seemed more a sign of the times — a backlash to the recession and President Barack Obama's election — than a lasting force.

The movement has outlived many expectations. Thousands of tea party groups have sprung up across the country, and tea party activists are having a significant impact on shaping Republican primaries across the country.

How the candidates they favor will fare against Democrats in November, and how their victorious candidates perform in office, could determine how big a force the tea party movement can be going forward, including in the 2012 presidential election.

Here's a question-and-answer primer on the tea party movement.

Q: Is the tea party a political party?

A: No. The name plays on the 1773 Boston Tea Party, when colonists protested British efforts to tax tea imports and dumped tea into Boston Harbor. The modern tea party movement brought together Americans who were angry, among other things, about tax dollars going to federal bailouts of banks, automakers and mortgage holders, as well as massive stimulus spending in the wake of the financial crisis. When the movement first began, some tea party activists mailed tea bags to members of Congress to express their anger.

Q: What's their platform?

A: There's no universal platform. Common themes among tea party groups are deficit reduction, opposition to spending "earmarks," reducing the size of government, eliminating mandates and repealing Obama's health care expansion. In recent months, there have been some efforts to rally tea party activists against global warming policy. Social policy has not been central to the tea party movement, although there have been some efforts, including Fox commentator Glenn Beck's recent rally in Washington, to connect religion to the tea party movement.

Q: Who started the tea party movement and when?

A: There's no one founder. The movement came together in January and February of 2009, as President Obama took office. Rick Santelli of CBNC on Feb. 19 delivered a commentary from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange that went viral on the Internet, in which he ranted against federal mortgage refinancing, said the federal government was rewarding irresponsible consumers, compared the U.S. to Cuba, and proposed a "Chicago Tea Party" to dump derivative securities in Lake Michigan.

Conservative talk radio hosts already were condemning the proposed federal stimulus, tagged at $787 billion when it passed. A stock trader in January had posted a message on the Web urging that tea bags be mailed to lawmakers in protest of federal bailouts. And a Seattle-based blogger in February 2009 organized an anti-stimulus protest.

The tea party moniker took off after what became known as the Santelli rant. The movement swelled as April 15, 2009, "tax day" protests were organized, and activists campaigned against Obama's health care overhaul before turning attention to the 2010 elections.

Q: Who's in charge, and where does the movement get its money?

A: There's no one leader. Umbrella groups such as the Tea Party Patriots, and social networking sites including Teabook.org, link activists who are members of hyper-local tea party organizations. It also has become a cottage industry for campaign consultants, T-shirt makers and convention organizers. Sal Russo, a California-based Republican political strategist behind the Tea Party Express, says there are roughly 4,000 tea party groups in the United States and hundreds being formed in other countries.

Some pre-existing advocacy groups that push fiscal conservatism or pro-business agendas, such as FreedomWorks, led by former GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey, have been active in organizing tea party members. Financing for the movement comes from a variety of private sources, from grassroots small-dollar donations to backing from wealthy business leaders including the billionaire Koch oil family.

Q: What are Glenn Beck's and Sarah Palin's roles?

A: Neither is a formal leader of a specific tea party group, but both have actively courted and built fans among tea party audiences. Beck organized the recent "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington that drew thousands of tea party activists. Palin spoke there at his invitation, as she has at other rallies, including one in Boston earlier this year. Palin also has backed several winning candidates with tea party support in congressional and gubernatorial contests this year.

Q: How do establishment Republicans and Democrats view the tea party movement?

A: With a sense of apprehension and curiosity. Rather than run candidates as independents, the tea party movement largely has inserted itself into Republican Party politics. In some cases its candidates toppled GOP incumbents in primaries, such as Sens. Bob Bennett in Utah and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. In Kentucky, the tea party movement helped Rand Paul win the GOP nomination for the open Senate seat over the Republican favored by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Both parties are waiting to see whether the tea party movement ultimately empowers or hobbles the Republican Party.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said that if the movement had run independent candidates and split the conservative vote, "that would have been far, far worse for us" than challenging establishment Republicans in primaries. "We welcome them in our primaries," he said. "I am glad that the tea party movement recognized that the Republican Party is where they ought to be."

Q: Which November elections with tea-party backed candidates are worth watching?

A: There are dozens. Among the most-watched races will be the Nevada Senate race pitting tea-party backed Republican Sharron Angle against Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid; and Rand Paul's bid for the Senate in Kentucky.

Both Angle and Paul have made rookie missteps and controversial statements on issues ranging from gun rights to affirmative action. Their bids in states where Republicans should be strong this year may be seen as tests of whether the tea party movement is helping or hurting the Republican Party.

In Colorado, several Republicans have yanked their support for the party's gubernatorial nominee, tea-party backed Dan Maes, after several campaign problems including misstatements about his work history. Tea party activists also could play important roles in Senate and gubernatorial races in big states such as California, Colorado and Florida, as well as in many House races across the country.

"The big question that needs to be answered, and will be answered on Election Day, is whether or not they nominated candidates who are, in fact, too conservative for general election voters," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Is there going to be some buyers' remorse and rethinking, and does the party survive that? On the other hand, if they're successful in places like Nevada and Kentucky, then you have to call them a force in 2012."

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