After Five Years, Tea Party Still Itching To Tangle With Its Own

Tea Party activists are more estranged than ever from their fellow Republicans.

February 27, 2014, 4:05 PM
PHOTO: A crowd of Tea Party activists and Republicans gathers at the World War Two Memorial, Oct. 13, 2013, in Washington.
A crowd of Tea Party activists and Republicans gathers at the World War Two Memorial, Oct. 13, 2013, in Washington.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Feb. 27, 2014— -- Five years after the Republican Party birthed the tea party movement, mother and child have never been more at odds.

The tension between "establishment" Republicans and tea party activists was on full display today at a 5th Anniversary event in Washington.

"They decided that they wanted somebody else," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, recounting his conflict with the Republican establishment in his 2010 campaign to tea party activists today. "They wanted somebody who was electable and apparently that person was not me."

When Rep. Rep Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, proposed that it was time to "retire John Boehner" -- the Republican House speaker -- the crowd jumped to its feet before he could even finish the sentence, which ended “Boehner’s biggest excuse ‘that we only control 1 half of 1/3 of the government.'"

Five years after the tea party came on the scene and delivered the momentum the Republican Party needed to retake the House of Representatives in 2010, both the establishment and grassroots activist are marking a sea change in the disposition of Washington politics.

Today, the tea party counts among its champions a few influential and relatively new lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

But tensions are rising.

Increasingly, so-called establishment Republicans are complaining that efforts to oust sitting Republicans are putting the party’s efforts to win valuable seats in the House and Senate in jeopardy. The tea party’s allies, however, disagree.

"It’s a free country and elections are a free market," Sen. Rand Paul told ABC News after he delivered a rousing address to activists today. "Even the people who have people running against them will admit, everyone has a right to run for office."

The movement, in its adolescence, has become bolder in challenging members their own party, but also more steeped in the ways of the political system they came into existence to challenge. Tea Party groups now have Super PACs, outside money groups, and PR firms to back up their candidates.

In 2014, many of those candidates who are challenging long-time and powerful incumbents also seem to be struggling to keep up.

Several tea party candidates have suffered embarrassing revelations in recent weeks, from Kansas doctor Milton Wolf, a challenger to longtime Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who acknowledged posting gruesome X-ray images of patients on Facebook to Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin, challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has struggled to explain his apparent past support for the Wall Street bailout program that he now campaigns against.

Establishment Republicans -- in defending their incumbents against challengers within their own party -- have been aggressive in pointing to these missteps as evidence that some elements of the tea party movement, particularly outside groups who are offering these candidates financial support, are pursuing a nihilistic agenda.

"It’s clear these outside groups spent very little time actually vetting their endorsed candidates," said Brian Walsh, a former communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "And that information is coming to the surface earlier than it did in previous cycles."

In essence, some tea party candidates may fail to net victories in their most coveted races this year because despite the trappings of a mature political operation, they are still far behind in some key but basic areas of the modern campaign: candidate vetting and opposition research.

One of the groups that have drawn the ire of establishment Republicans for backing tea party challengers to incumbent republicans is the Madison Project, which endorsed Bevin, Wolf, and several other Republicans who in recent weeks have struggled on the campaign trail.

Daniel Horowitz, the group’s political director, said that the hallmark of a tea party candidate is actually that they aren’t polished politicians with whitewashed backgrounds. But he acknowledged that despite efforts to better support candidates this year, the movement is clearly still falling short.

"It clearly is necessary," said Horowitz of the need for tea party candidates to compete with opposition research.

He suggested, however, that the missteps haven’t been disqualifying.

"When you’re running against the establishment, you are never going to find any candidate that does not have something that can either be taking out of context, exploited, or something that can be completely used against him," he said. "That’s just a reality."

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