In Texas, polls show that Solicitor General Ted Cruz might pull an upset against Lt. Governor David Dewhurst in the runoff for state’s open U.S. Senate seat, as he sports a five percentage point lead. He had better win, or else the tea party movement may well wither afterwards.
It’s been a terrible two years for the tea (“taxed enough already”) party movement, since getting a lot of credit for success in 2010. First, there was the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Though it was a mentally insane person with no connection to an organized political movement, it was Sarah Palin’s website that had a sniper’s crosshairs on Giffords (later lamely claimed to be a “surveyor’s” marking). Using terms like “blood libel” found in Nazi Germany did further damage to the tea party image.
Maybe that’s why Palin, the darling of the 2008 convention, wasn’t invited to speak at the 2012 convention in Tampa.
Then there’s Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who gave her own strange “tea party response” to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, undercutting the message of Congressman Paul Ryan, who Republicans were hope to tout as a presidential or vice-presidential candidate. Her early Iowa Straw Poll lead melted away as she and Palin struggled with the basics of American Revolution history. She became one of the first to drop out of the 2012 primary.
During the 2011 debt ceiling debate, Team Obama was able to frame the rating agency downgrade as a “tea party downgrade.” Fairly or unfairly, they were able to portray the tea party as a group willing to push American off the fiscal cliff, something which seems to have made Republicans gun shy about confronting Obama in 2012.
Despite the poor showing of Republicans in 2011 in winnable races in West Virginia, Kentucky, and losing ballot initiatives in Mississippi and Ohio, the tea party was able to take out Senator Richard Lugar and Congressman John Sullivan. But they lost chances to defeat Orrin Hatch in Utah and have any influence on the presidential primary and most congressional races.
That’s why it may be all up to Cruz. He holds a 71%-26% lead among the tea party faithful, but a 34%-57% deficit among those who do not claim a tea party affiliation in that PPP poll. If he can beat an “establishment Republican” like Dewhurst, he may give the tea party enough oxygen to regroup as an effective political movement. Otherwise, the tea party may find itself in the 50th anniversary edition of the Trivial Pursuit game, with little more impact historically than the American Independence Party or Dixiecrat movement.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.