The Tea Party’s electoral dilemma

Our Constitution presents a recurring dilemma for social movements: routine elections.  Right after the Republicans won massive gains in the 2010 elections–and the Tea Party claimed a great deal of credit for those victories–conservative activists shifted their attention to the 2012 elections.

For the Tea Party, this means working to influence the selection of (mostly) Republican candidates for office, turning away from demonstrations and house meetings to the normal stuff of electoral politics: raising money, organizing candidate forums, contributing money, and turning out voters.

At Roll Call, Janie Lorber reports on the shift in strategies within FreedomWorks, one of the key organizations underneath the Tea Party movement:

FreedomWorks, a nearly 20-year-old grass-roots advocacy organization led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), will take on a deeper and more sophisticated role in the 2012 elections than ever before. The organization has its eyes on 15 Senate seats, including Utah, and will target both Democrats and Republicans. The group aims to raise $10 million through a new super political action committee called FreedomWorks for America…

“We’re not a protest movement anymore,” said Matt Kibbe, the group’s president. “It is a protest movement morphed into a get-out-the-vote movement. We are here to think nationally but act locally.”

On one level, this makes sense.  Elected officials make policy.  Putting politicians who agree with you in office is the most direct way to get what you want from government.  On the other hand, this means ceding both the drama and moral clarity of movement activism for the trade-offs inherent in electoral politics.

So, Lorber reports on FreedomWorks activists attacking the Republican Party’s Senatorial Committee, warning it not to support Utah Senator Orrin Hatch’s re-election campaign.  Senator Hatch has a long career in office, and in any other environment he would be seen as a strict conservative.  But Hatch is also a professional legislator, who has cut deals with Democrats to govern; for FreedomWorks, Hatch’s recent sins include supporting the financial bailout under President George W. Bush, and previously voting to raise the debt ceiling to keep government operating.

In any other world outside of Utah’s Republican primary, Tea Partiers would find more important targets than an experienced and very conservative Republican senator.  And in Utah, it may all be fine, for it’s unlikely that any Democrat could beat any US Senate candidate with an “R” after his name.

But Republican regulars are well aware that Tea Party activists were critical in getting Republican Senate nominations for strong advocates (and weak candidates) who cost the party several seats.  Read: Joe Miller (Alaska), Sharron Angle (Nevada), Ken Buck (Colorado), and Christine O’Donnell (Delaware).  (The purity versus pragmatism dilemma discussed here.)

The 20-30 percent of the populace who claim support for the Tea Party, mobilized and active, are a critical resource for conservatives.  Using movement strategies, including protest, they can command political attention and advance ideas.

But they can’t win general elections without appealing to the center of the political spectrum.  They can, however, be extremely influential in Republican primaries, including the long slog toward the Republican presidential nomination.  They may knock off some likely winners to nominate stronger Tea Party advocates.  They are quite likely to pull regular Republicans further to the right in seeking primary support.

All of this may be very good news for Democrats–and bad news for the Tea Party’s continued influence.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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One Response to The Tea Party’s electoral dilemma

  1. Pingback: Blog News- Left and Right Views » The Tea Party's electoral dilemma | Politics Outdoors

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