In South Carolina and elsewhere, pols seek yet disdain tea party clout

In 201l, a Tea Party rally at the South Carolina State House, April 18, 2011, in Columbia, South Carolina. (Gerry Melendez/The State/MCT)
In 201l, a Tea Party rally at the South Carolina State House, April 18, 2011, in Columbia, South Carolina. (Gerry Melendez/The State/MCT) MCT

As Democrats claw desperately to hang on to a Senate majority in the upcoming elections, one conservative voice has been noticeably muted in the fight for seats: a cohesive far-right tea party.

It’s been four years since the group made its sensational entrance onto the national stage, prompting a swell of support that swept names like Florida’s Marco Rubio, Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Texas’ Ted Cruz into Washington. Touting a general distaste for government and a focused disgust for Democrats, the grassroots movement helped oust a host of more traditional, pork barrel incumbents.

But according to recent Gallup polls, the number of Republicans who consider themselves supporters of the tea party has steadily dropped since the movement’s peak in 2010, down from 61 percent to 41 percent. With its heyday behind it, the tea party of 2014 looks less like a movement and more like a fractured, disconnected offensive, doomed by hyper-local ties that make national impact a challenge.

“There’s no single tea party organization, most of which don’t have a whole lot of money,” said Robert Boatright, a political science professor and an expert in congressional primaries at Clark University in Massachusetts. “If candidates wish to refer to themselves as a tea party candidate, there’s not really anybody to say no.”

That lack of cohesive voice has already led to tumbles in the 2014 midterm primaries, where so-called tea party challengers failed miserably to upset incumbents with national GOP backing.

South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, for instance, easily avoided a runoff and walked away with the state’s Republican nomination earlier this year, despite being considered one of this cycle’s more vulnerable incumbents. When all was said and done, though, he had less than 60 percent of the votes.

“That’s no overwhelming landslide. It shows that there’s still some resentment out there,” said David Woodard, a political science professor at South Carolina’s Clemson University.

But that resentment was spread among six different tea party challengers, a fracture that Woodard says speaks to the group’s now exploited weaknesses.

“They each had a geographic support, and what happened is, there was nobody to sort of pull them all together,” he said.

Graham’s South Carolina serves as a useful petri dish when considering the tea party’s lifespan, a deep red, conservative microcosm that has hosted various tea party dramas since the group found a foothold in 2010. For years, Graham has had to fend off attacks from the far right, which says he isn’t conservative enough. Some of his delegation colleagues, meanwhile, have attempted a delicate balance: beckoning tea party support with one hand while holding them at arm’s length with the other.

The House elections of 2010 saw several amateur Republicans in South Carolina knock longtime institutional politicians out of office. Reps. Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Duncan and now-Sen. Tim Scott all rode the swell into office.

It’s difficult to nail down exactly where the four stand now on the tea party. Mulvaney, Duncan and Scott were reportedly all associated with Congress’ Tea Party Caucus at some point, although it appears the caucus, headed by Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann, is not as organized as it was during its inaugural run in 2010. Bachmann’s spokesman, Dan Kotman, said the group is still holding meetings but does not maintain an official membership list.

This reluctance to publicly associate with the movement reflects a trend found in the tea party’s tidal wave aftermath: Many lawmakers didn’t so much help build the wave as hitch its ride to Washington.

Part of the problem, said Mulvaney, is that the tea party’s decentralized organization leaves even him confused on where he stands.

“Nobody knows what it means to be in or out,” he said. “There’s no good answer to the question of what does it mean to be tea party. . . . It depends on the issue.”

Even tea party groups in his home state don’t always agree, Mulvaney said, and the lack of a cohesive voice makes it difficult to clearly label himself.

But the labeling, and the potential voter deterrence that comes with it, could be what’s kept lawmakers from making a clear distinction.

“I don’t think anybody wants to actually be solely defined by the tea party,” said Richard Quinn, a renowned Columbia, S.C.-based pollster and GOP strategist. “They’re all satisfied with the label ‘Republican.’ Like every elected official, you want to expand, you don’t want to narrow your base.”

It may be more a question of semantics, though, at least when it comes to the movement’s dwindling support. There’s a fine line, pollsters say, between being a “member” of the tea party and a “supporter.”

“From the very beginning, we’ve never found more than 5 or 6 percent of people who say they were members of the tea party,” said Woodard, who along with being a professor also helps conduct Clemson’s Palmetto Poll. “When we polled and asked, ‘Do you support the tea party?’ we’d get 60, 70 percent support.”

The movement also is difficult to define.

“It’s more of an attitude than a party,” said Quinn. But its influence, he said, could still have staying power.

“It’s mercurial in the literal sense of that word. You think the influence of the tea party movement may be waning, and then all of the sudden, some issues will develop . . . folks reignite it and their strength will grow again,” he said. “They ebb and flow. They’re like the tides of Charleston.”