TEA PARTY: From Fringe Element To Power Player Sparked by protest and stoked by town-hall anger, Tea Party activists scalded Democrats on election night. Now they face a more delicate challenge: how to govern.
NPR logo TEA PARTY: From Fringe Element To Power Player

TEA PARTY: From Fringe Element To Power Player

Now that Tea Party activists have earned a place at the table, they will wrestle with the same sobering reality they just forced on President Obama: It is one thing to lead a movement and quite another to govern.

Confined to the political fringe a little more than a year ago, the movement was dismissed by leaders of both political parties as a hodgepodge of angry anti-tax extremists. But Tea Party members executed a grass-roots campaign that powered the Republicans' takeover of the House and helped shrink the Democratic majority in the Senate on Tuesday.

In effect, they've helped put the Republican Party on a course to recovery from its 2008 unraveling.

"I declared success … a month or so ago because we've changed the dynamics of American politics so dramatically," said Sal Russo, co-founder of the Tea Party Express, at the group's election-night headquarters in Las Vegas. "Today, it's very difficult to find a Republican or a Democrat, or a liberal or a conservative, that doesn't sound like they belong to a Tea Party movement. We've totally changed the focus of what people are talking about, and they are now refocused on the fiscal issues that confront America."

Exit polling by Edison Research showed that two of every three Republican voters supported the Tea Party. And The Associated Press reported exit polls showing that 40 percent of all voters identified themselves as Tea Party backers.

"I want government to back off and quit getting involved in so much, and quit trying to take control of everything, and quit thinking they can take whatever money they need to throw at whatever problem, because it's not working," Lori Hart said after casting her ballot in Wimberley, Texas. "It really upsets me to hear the Tea Party called nut cases and radicals and extremists, when for me that's the most vocal I've seen the American citizen be for a long time."

And the Tea Parties didn't just energize conservatives. In a number of exit polls, voters -- including many African-Americans who accused Tea Partiers of racial invective -- said they were motivated to turn out in opposition to the movement.

They couldn't topple the Senate majority leader, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid -- the biggest target of conservatives in the midterm elections. But the Tea Partiers did succeed with a number of high-profile candidates, including senators-elect Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, plus incoming South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

Tea Party groups endorsed more than 150 candidates in at least 70 House races, seven Senate contests and three governor's elections.

The Next Steps

Election Day may have been the easy part. The new challenges for Tea Partiers: First, finding common ground with traditional Republicans in Congress, and then dealing with a Democratic president without alienating supporters adamantly opposed to compromise.

Tea Party leaders have vowed to hold firm to their fiscal platform, which includes permanently extending the Bush tax cuts, reducing the federal deficit and repealing the health care overhaul.

Such plans are certain to meet opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and the White House has indicated that the president won't be afraid to use his veto. Despite their newfound power in the House, Republicans won't have enough votes to override a veto.

In any event, observers say conservatives can draw lessons from their last "Republican Revolution."

"One peril is they could push too far too fast and trigger something like a government shutdown. That could work against their interests, as the Republicans learned in 1995 and 1996," said political scientist Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College in California.

"The other peril is they could get too establishment too quickly, like the Republicans did from 1994 to 2004, when they started focusing on bringing pork back to their districts. ... The challenge is to maintain their principles while finding pragmatism."

An Incremental Approach

Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, said her group plans to hold newly elected conservatives to its principles. "We have to slow things down and stop this aggressive agenda of spending and government takeover of health care and the auto industry," she said.

She also acknowledged that "in this one election cycle, we're not going to be able to drastically change things." Kremer said her group and its newly elected members of Congress could advocate an incremental approach, such as trying to defund only certain parts of the health care law.

The first test could come in the upcoming lame-duck session of the outgoing Congress, which could take up the tax cuts and a proposal to raise the federal government's debt ceiling.

"We're going to see very quickly if they can be flexible on those two issues," said Michael Dimock, assistant director of the Pew Research Center, which analyzed the polling data from Edison.