The Tea Party: Cooled Down, Or As Strong As Ever?

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The Tea Party may have took the 2010 midterm elections by storm, but many analysts are now asking if the party's influence has cooled off. Host Michel Martin looks at the Tea Party's prospects for this election with NPR's Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving and Shelby Blakely, journalist coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. As many voters, or would-be voters, consider tonight's second presidential debate, we decided to take another look at one of the groups that may have an influence on that and other races this election season. It's a group that first earned attention for boisterous rallies and demonstrations at town halls and in fairly short order was credited with a major impact on the 2010 midterm elections for helping to return the House of Representatives to Republican control.

Of course we're talking about the Tea Party movement. In a minute we'll speak to a Tea Party activist to get her views about how the group is evolving. But first, let's take a look at the role of the Tea Party in congressional races. And our guest is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So Ron, as we said, in 2010 candidates that were associated with the Tea Party stormed the congressional races. Are we seeing the same thing this time around?

ELVING: No. Because to some degree the Tea Party now has become the establishment, at least within a portion of the Republican Party, say, the House Republican caucus. The Tea Party is very much the warp and woof of the party there, and while there were a number of Tea Party challengers to Republican incumbents in the primaries this year, as there had been earlier, this time around the Republican incumbents held them off.

However, when the Tea Party endorsed the Republican incumbent - frequently somebody who had been associated with the Tea Party or friendly to it - that incumbent also won the primary. So as I say, the Tea Party is no longer the complete outsider element. It now really constitutes the mainstream of the House Republican caucus.

MARTIN: Now, that's interesting that the Tea Party caucus itself, which was newly formed, claims 60 members. If you're looking at the Tea Party caucus on the whole, some of these are freshman and some of these are experienced members, as you said, who were embraced by the Tea Party - how are they doing as a whole in their reelection races?

ELVING: Several of them, of course, are very high profile targets for the Democrats, including Michele Bachmann herself in Minnesota, who apparently is going to have something of a close race. She has a self-financing Democratic opponent. And down in Florida, Allen West, who has certainly been a high profile figure. A lot of people expect him to have a tough race and we see conflicting polls there.

But also Joe Walsh, who had a great deal of media presence during these two years in Illinois, in the outer suburbs of Chicago. He's certainly got a tough race and he may very well be the single most endangered person on the Republican list writ large. But among the Tea Party members, not as many as you might think look shaky for November.

In other words, let's take the 20 toughest races from the standpoint of the National Republican Congressional Committee itself. If you look at the 20 races they think are going to be hardest for them, fewer than half of those really have what you would call outright Tea Party ties or are members of that Tea Party caucus.

MARTIN: We're talking about the impact of the Tea Party in this election season. We've been hearing from NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. We're going to ask him to stand by. And now we're going to bring in Shelby Blakely. She is the journalist coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. That's a national organization that supports local Tea Party groups.

And she's been with us from time to time to talk about what the Tea Party is doing and how the group is evolving. Shelby, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

SHELBY BLAKELY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you just heard Ron Elving say that the Tea Party is kind of now the warp and woof of the Republican caucus. Does it feel that way to you?

BLAKELY: It would be great if that were true, but honestly, there's no love lost between the Tea Party movement and the Republican establishment. I think the race with Joe Walsh in Illinois is a classic example of the establishment working against the Tea Party.

Wash was redistricted and forced into a face-off with a more moderate Republican candidate and the GOP, since he won that primary, they have not been giving him the support that he needs specifically in that state because they have basically written it off for the presidential election.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you - why do you think that is? You're saying that you think that A) there is an establishment that's different from the Tea Party. I mean Ron's view is that the Tea Party is part of the establishment now. You're saying that you feel that there's still some tension between those groups?

BLAKELY: Oh, absolutely. If the Tea Party was controlling the Republican establishment at large, you would not have seen the debt ceiling increase. You would not have seen the continuing resolutions. People like John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, those kind of people, they're not friends of the Tea Party and they've shown that time and time again.

MARTIN: But you know, many Republicans have embraced issues important to the Tea Partiers even if they don't use the same language. But there was an absence of Tea Party members on stage at the Republican National Convention. So when you look at that altogether, Shelby, you see what?

BLAKELY: Well, you saw a lot of more conservative members of the Republican establishment party, but not once during the entire Republican convention was the phrase Tea Party uttered by anyone.

MARTIN: Ron, let me hear from you on this. Now, Republican - there are a lot of Republican candidates who say that they're sympathetic to Tea Party ideals, including the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, but they stop shy of describing themselves as Tea Party members. What does that say to you?

ELVING: Shelby is quite right about the Republican National Convention in Tampa. The Tea Party was not featured. The Tea Party really was not mentioned. And yet the issues that the Tea Party ran on and the emphases that the Tea Party tried to give to the Republican thrust in the House and in the Senate in the last Congress, the current Congress, was very much the focal point.

So the term Tea Party does not poll as well as it once did. If you look at a Republican poll like Rasmussen, it's still pretty much equally divided whether people see the Tea Party positively or not. Some other polls have the Tea Party positives down now below 30, down around a quarter.

That's way down from where it was at its height. So the phrase Tea Party may not be popular, and if you want to define the Republican establishment strictly as the leadership - John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, not terribly popular leaders, even among the people who are voting them into the leadership - yes, there is clearly a divide between the Tea Party impetus and those leaders.

But what is the establishment? The establishment, in the end, is the voting bloc that controls which way those chambers go. If the House Republican caucus goes in a certain direction because that's where most of the Tea Party members want to go, then that becomes the warp and woof of what the Republican Party is in the House and ditto in the Senate.

MARTIN: Now, Shelby, what about that Rasmussen poll that Ron just cited? The Rasmussen poll taken this spring says that 44 percent have a favorable opinion of the Tea Party compared to 49 percent who have an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party. How do you read that? What do you think that means?

BLAKELY: Well, I think there's been a lot of misconceptions about the Tea Party, what it is and what it does, in the media. And because the movement is maturing past the protest stage, past the sign waving stage, there hasn't been a lot of dialogue back and forth between the Tea Party and the media.

What we're doing is, as a grassroots organization, our members are extremely interested in school board meetings, city council positions, county commissioner positions, and then working up to the state and federal level. I'd really call it trickle up politics. But as far as controlling the national leadership, only 22 Republicans voted against raising the debt ceiling.

I would not call that a majority and it shows America how much work we still have to do in order to bring fiscal responsibility back to our government ideals.

MARTIN: Shelby, you were saying that the focus of one of the Tea Party Patriots that you're in touch with is the local races. Is that right?

BLAKELY: It's actually a split focus. There's a good portion of the groups and the members of those groups and those coordinators that are focusing on local issues and local and state politics. But there's also a good segment of people more interested in the national level. There's even an emerging section of the Tea Party who's interested in monitoring and reporting on the bureaucracy, the unelected bureaucracy, and we hope to use the elected officials to hold that unelected bureaucracy accountable.

MARTIN: Well, what's the logic of the focus on the local races? If the issue is constitutionally limited government and the debt, then wouldn't it seem that the focus ought to be on Congress and the Senate?

BLAKELY: Well, the thinking is - the speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, once said all politics is local. And Tea Party members realize that if the local and state governments stand up to the federal government, the federal government does not have a leg to stand on. The federal government is the creation of the states and of the people, and as such if we control those mechanisms, we can control the centralization of power.

MARTIN: OK. Interesting. Now, Ron, I just wanted to get your take on what Shelby was saying about the local level. Do you think that that's in part about creating a farm team, if you want to use that phrase?

ELVING: There's always a split in any election between those people who are thinking in terms of that election cycle only and those people who are thinking about multiple cycles in the future, and younger people, in particular, are frequently interested in asking, what's in this for me? Is there an office I might run for down the road? And, if I'm not interested or not able to run for Congress in this particular cycle or if I'm not able to run for a state legislative seat, is there something I could do in this cycle to get my name out there? Could I run for some lesser office? Could I get some experience? Could I show what a Tea Party person would do if in office?

And so, yes, you're building a farm team. You're building a farm team, not just for 2014 or '16, but for the 2020s and the 2030s.

MARTIN: Finally, in the just a couple of minutes that we left, I wanted to ask about the whole question of turn-out. A lot of people are saying that this election depends on turn-out, since the pool of voters who are actually winnable or undecided is shrinking, so now it's really all about getting people out to the polls.

And I wanted to ask each of you if you think that the Tea Party is as big a player in that as it was in 2010. So, Shelby, I'll hear from you first and then, Ron, I'll get your perspective on that. What do you think, Shelby?

BLAKELY: I absolutely believe they are because we have matured past the sign waving stage and past the protest stage and we are in things like city councils and, specifically, primaries. If I had to describe the Tea Party in a phrase, it would be grim determination. We're there door knocking. We're there dropping literature. We're there connecting with local people on the local level and that's what a voter is. Someone local.

MARTIN: Ron, what do you say?

ELVING: The Tea Party was, by far and away, the most important turnout factor in 2010, but the turn-out that it dominated was a relative low turn-out. In the state of New York, the turn-out was the lowest in the entire country, down in something like the 25 percent range or lower, and the Tea Party, as a result, was able to be dominant.

In 2012, with a presidential election, you're going to have a much larger turn-out in places like New York, but also all across the country. And, in that situation, the same power, the same number of votes, the same turn-out ability that the Tea Party had in 2010 will be on a much different scale. It will be competing with a much larger turn-out from other elements, other elements of the Republican Party, Independents and Democrats. So we'll see if it has the same kind of impact.

MARTIN: Ron, still something to keep an eye on, still a movement important to watch, in your opinion?

ELVING: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor. He was with us from Washington, D.C. Shelby Blakely is the journalist coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots and she was with us from member station WABE in Atlanta, Georgia.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BLAKELY: Good to be back.

ELVING: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, Malala Yousafzai is only a teenager, but she was speaking out against the militants who she feared were taking over her part of Pakistan, the Swat Valley.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: But, my dear friends, today, Swat has, in the past few years, become a heartland for Pakistan Islamic militancy.

MARTIN: And, for that, she was shot last week by the Taliban. New York Times print and film correspondent Adam Ellick got to know the young girl, who is now fighting for her life. He tells us more about her in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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