It was one year ago that the Tea Party movement helped Republicans take control of the U.S. House of Representatives. With the presidential election a year away, the movement finds itself searching for ways to have the same kind of impact this time around.
The Tea Party celebrated on election night last year with candidates like Rand Paul, who captured a Senate seat in Kentucky.
“Tonight there’s a Tea Party tidal wave, and we’re sending a message to them,” Paul said in his victory speech.
With the House victories, the congressional Tea Party Caucus doubled in size to more than 60. Among them, Illinois Republican Joe Walsh who said the group needs to keep the pressure on House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans.
“I’ve been hard on our leadership because I’m one of these Tea Party freshmen who want as many spending cuts as we can get,” Walsh said in an NPR interview in April.
The Tea Party caucus took a hard line in debate over raising the debt ceiling this summer, pushing the government to the brink of default. The movement didn’t get the result it wanted but it did take credit for forcing a debate.
Through it all, the Tea Party kept an eye on 2012, with events like a summertime bus tour organized by Ryan Rhodes of the Iowa Tea Party.
“First off, I want to thank everybody for coming out here today, especially on a beautiful day here. I hope this will be very useful to everybody coming.”
The Tea Party’s goal is to have as big an impact on the presidential race as it did on congressional contests last year. An early favorite of the movement was Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota. She kicked off her presidential campaign in Waterloo, Iowa, describing a GOP made up of fiscal and social conservatives.
“And it’s made up of the Tea Party movement and I am one of those,” Bachmann said.
But Bachmann has since dropped in the polls as other candidates have courted Tea Party votes. They are Herman Cain, who’s battling allegations of sexual harassment, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
The one thing most Tea Party activists seem to agree on is that they don’t like Mitt Romney, whose big sin was signing a Massachusetts healthcare law.
But the chill goes both ways. He was asked about the movement by NBC’s Brian Williams at a debate in California.
“Governor Romney, are you a member of the Tea Party,” Williams asked.
“I don’t think you carry cards in the Tea Party,” Romney answered. “I believe in a lot of what the Tea Party believes in.”
Still, Romney remains at or near the top of the polls even with little or no Tea Party backing.
But he’s not entirely without friends in the movement.
“Governor Romney is not getting a fair shot from the Tea Party, from some in the Tea Party,” said former U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell of Delaware.
While a favorite of the Tea Party, O’Donnell lost the 2010 race for the seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden. It was a race Republicans expected to win.
O’Donnell’s primary win was a victory of ideology over electability. Now she defends Romney, citing electability.
“We need to consider who is going to be able to beat Barack Obama and right now we’ve got a field of candidates and some of them are going to get crushed by the Obama machine and some of them have the infrastructure to beat Barack Obama,” O’Donnell said.
The Tea Party does have a much higher profile this election. It even flirted with the establishment by teaming up with CNN for a televised debate.
But that event also brought about memorable moments like when moderator Wolfe Blitzer asked candidate Ron Paul what happens if someone chooses not to purchase health insurance has an accident and winds up in a hospital, in a coma.
Congressman Paul answered “no” but an audience member shouted “yes.” It prompted a new round of criticism of the Tea Party as heartless and ready to dismantle the social safety net.
Over the past year the public support for the movement has fallen off. In a September CNN poll 53 percent of Americans surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party.
“We have taken some hits,” says Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks, one of several organizations that has lent financial and other support to the movement. “Our negatives are up some, but that’s the price of leadership.”
Kibbe says the Tea Party of today is very different from the one that began in 2009.
“It’s a natural evolution,” Kibbe explains. “We started as a protest movement. We morphed into a get out the vote machine, but now we’re literally thinking locally and acting nationally and that to me is an exciting and maturing of the Tea Party movement.”
Kibbe says it’s too soon to say if there will be a presidential nominee the movement can rally around. If not, he says then the focus will be on congressional and senate races. He says they know they can have an impact there — just as they did one year ago.