How the Tea Party Won Washington
In recent history, no political activist group has gained so much power so fast. The most extreme part of a political party is generally not in the driver’s seat. That all changed when the Tea Party came into power.
The creation of the Tea Party as we now know it was actually a long term project.
The Gingrich Era
Despite the movement itself being a new phenomena, the groundwork had been set for something like the Tea Party to emerge well beforehand. This was done predominately by conservative domination of the political discourse during and after the Reagan era (partially due to Reagan’s repeal of the fairness doctrine, which sought to balance all political reporting).
The 1996 launch of Fox News pioneered a brand new way of covering the news itself. Media consumers could now choose a method of getting the news that ultimately just reconfirmed a person’s preconceived ordeals. Fox News also knew how tp get itself seen by the largest amount of people possible through a series of contracts with cable providers and businesses. This ensured Fox would always get more viewership than its competitors. Fox drifted the cable news industry far to the right. The drift was so pronounced that CNN had shows featuring conservatives like Glenn Beck and Stuart Varney. MSNBC was no different, hosting shows from Alan Keyes, Michael Savage and Joe Scarborough.
Conservatives dominated radio through shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Lara, Sean Hannity and others. Conservatives even dominated publishing, by writing more accessible books about current affairs than academic books like Manufacturing Consent.
While conservatives were dominating the media landscape, the movement would constantly state that the media actually favored liberals and was outwardly hostile to them. This form of working the referees largely worked for republican politicians and was internalized as fact by the rank and file.
The early internet also favored conservatives. The biggest political website at the time was DrudgeReport-a site operated by a deeply conservative muckraker. The early huffington Post was co-founded by Andrew Breitbart.
During the same time, Newt Gingrich ushered in a new era of politics that was highly personal and confrontational. An entire industry had been created with the sole purpose of taking down the Democratic President if the time, Bill Clinton. The results of both the new media new tactics led to a number of previously unthinkable events happening. Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in half a century, a President was impeached based on the flimsiest of cases, and REpublicans had essentially passed the entirety of their right wing agenda with help from a Democratic President they didn’t respect.
Bush and the erosion of norms
Throughout the Bush administration the typical norms of US politics had been shattered. The Supreme Court was increasingly seen as just another political branch of government. Routine appointments to federal office became huge proxy battles, and by the end of Bush’s 2nd term, nearly all legislation would require a 60 vote supermajority to pass. By the time Bush left office, faith in nearly every institution reached an all time low-further sowing the seeds for a radical conservative movement.
The 2008 landslide
Republicans lose the Presidency and Democrats win with the highest percentage of the vote their nominee had seen since the landslide of 1964. Obama’s approval starts at over 70 percent, Bush’s approval is the lowest ever recorded for an American President. Democrats have the largest congressional majorities seen in a generation and just won the last two elections by landslides. At the time, it’s noted Republicans only has won the popular vote once in the last twenty years. Political pundits openly speculate on the long term viability of the GOP.
A new President
The Tea Party took the political world by storm in Summer 2009. For decades, members of Congress had ventured back to their home district to meet with constituents. Usually the yearly pilgrimage was uneventful. The people who showed up to talk politics with their elected official were usually known quantities. In 2009, President Obama pursued sweeping health care legislation-and the response went down in history.
Angry constituents shouted down members of Congress, conducted mass protests, inundated Congress with angry phone calls, emails and written letters. Petitions were signed, and even reliably conservative Republican legislators were the subject of the new movement’s ire. The Tea Party was a new force in American politics-hastening a civil war within the Republican party as the establishment and far right battled for control of the GOP.
Before the recess, as many as 8 Republican Senators were being targeted fr supporting health care reform. By the end of the Summer 9 Democratic Senators from conservative states began to waiver. The situation was so dire for health care reform that President Obama decided he needed to give a rare joint session speech and White House Summit on the plan.
Before the health care fasco, Republican lawmakers met the day Obama took office vowing to not work with him and Mitch McConnell stated that his number one goal was making Obama a 1 term President. Weeks before that, Rush Limbaugh had sparked controversy by stating “I hope he fails”. Before Obama was even sworn in,
Back in 2010, the tea party was mocked, derisively called “The Teabaggers” by liberal elites. In a year of Republican triumph, flawed candidates backed by tea party activists had essentially cost Republicans Senate seats in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada. Liberals mocked the group, and for understandable reasons. The Tea Party activists essentially went to the bat to protect insurance companies from regulation, and believed that the Republican Party that had just destroyed the country for the last 8 years wasn’t conservative enough. Many liberals in power thanked the tea party for nominating such flawed candidates that Democrats were still able to hold the US Senate despite an awful election.
This is a complete misunderstanding of history. Tea party activists actually elected new Senators in Kentucky, Utah, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida. At the time, all the Senators elected to these seats were seen as a new era of Republican politician more in line with movement conservatism. Republicans may have lost 3 winnable races, but they gained conservative hardliners in 6 other contests. Doing so was a remarkable feat. In order to win the primaries, activists had defeated the former Republican Governor of Florida, the former Republican Governor of Delaware, and beat two sitting Senators in primaries.
The enthusiasm of the Tea Party swept Republicans into power they had not had in years. They took over the House with a 242 seat majority (a 63 seat gain), secured 29 Governorships, hundreds of new state legislative seats, and full control of 25 state legislatures
In 2012 the Tea Party got two more Senators elected in Arizona and Texas, but it in a repeat of 2010, it’s extreme candidates lost them seats in Missouri and Indiana. A host of hard line candidates captured the Republican base’s imagination, including Donald Trump-who decided against a run. In total, tea party aligned candidates received about 46.2 percent of the total primary vote share. The Tea Party was now well financed and organized too, with 15 affiliated PACs and 502c3s. The seats they won in state elections helped them redistrict in a way that consolidated their power for the next decade.
Breitbart became the source of conservative hard edge news, and far right conservatives found a receptive audience on Youtube.
The Tea Party launched a series of high profile primary challenges that nearly took down 3 longtime incumbent Senators. In Kansas, Mississippi and Tennessee three previously unknown challengers had nearly defeated Senators with extremely conservative voting records and decades of time spent in Washington. The three challengers averaged about 45% of the primary vote and lost by an average of only 5.1 points against sitting Senators.
By this point in time, the Tea Party had forced House Speaker John Boehner into retirement, and successfully primaried his second in command, Rep. Eric Cantor out of office. Their hardline tactics of using the debt ceiling authorization as a bargaining chip had also largely worked. Republican leaders got Obama to sign on to across the board cuts to domestic spending. Obama signed into law budgets that cut the deficit by 60 percent. The Tea Party even got Obama to agree to cuts to Social Security and Medicare in the form of benefit cuts and raising the retirement age, but GOP leadership backed out of the deal last minute. The Tea Party even got Obama to endorse cutting corporate taxes and negotiated with him to extend the Bush tax cuts permanently, with even more tax cuts added on in 2011. They also got Obama to cut taxes again in 2014.
Seizing total power
In 2016, the Tea Party’s hostile takeover of the GOP was 100 percent complete. 2010’s original tea party candidate Marco Rubio received third place. 2012’s Tea Party poster boy Ted Cruz finished second, and the ultimate tea party candidate won the White House in the form of Donald Trump. All the tea party candidates combined equaked 84 percent of the 2016 GOP Primary vote.
As minorities in the House of Representatives, Republicans wield 198 seats. 23 of those seats are currently held by Tea Party affiliated Republicans-most seats got swept up in 2018’s blue wave. Meanwhile in the Senate, 13 members consider themselves tea party conservatives. This is roughly a quarter of the entire GOP Senate caucus.
The Tea Party essentially succeeded in what it wanted to do. It forced out a Speaker of the House and his second in command, both despised by the Republican base. The Tea Party elected 8 Senators and elected one of their own as President and Vice President. The Tea Party Senators even robbed Obama of his right to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat and got a Democratic President to acquiesce to many of their policies.
For these reasons, the Tea Party is the blueprint on how the base of a party can seize power and use it effectively.