The GOP and the Tea Party, a zero-sum game that will inevitably end up in tears ?

The new legislation on Religious Freedom1 » passed in Indiana and Arkansas in April 2015 shows the widening gap between the Tea Party and the establishment of the Republican Party. The nature of their relations has been more and more tumultuous throughout Obama’s presidency. This article will look into the nature of the relationship between the Tea Party and the GOP and it will explore the future prospects of their union.

The Tea Party does not have a strong electoral power on the national political scene, as only 18% of the American population identifies itself as a Tea Party supporter. However, as a faction, the movement does have a great influence within the Republican Party. Indeed, it is mostly led by rich retired white men, who have the time and money to campaign and get engaged, as Professor Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson demonstrate in their book, The Tea Party and The Remaking of American Conservatism.

As an example of their influence within the Republican Party, the 2010 mid-term elections were quite typical. The Tea Party created considerable tension within the GOP during the Republican primaries, because of the support it gave to outside or non-establishment candidates. Indeed, as revealed on the website, 49% of independent candidates identified themselves as active Tea Party supporters, while 43% of “strong Republicans” were actively supportive of the Tea Party Movement. Among the candidates who were backed by the Tea Party or claimed to be Tea Party members, 32% won the election and several of them won victories against established Republicans in primaries. That was the case for Mike Lee, who defeated establishment Republican U.S. Senator Bob Bennett in Utah. From that moment on, Tea partiers seemed to have brought a deep strategic and intellectual change within the GOP, and the 2010 mid-terms to be their high-water mark. 

Also, the 2012 presidential elections were the most telling example of the Tea Party’s influence within the GOP. Tea Partiers pushed for the Republican Party to reorient its program towards more conservatism, and Romney found himself forced to adopt far-righter positions on controversial issues, such as abortion and gay rights, as well as to put Paul Ryan (who was heavily associated with the Tea Party) on his ticket. Then, the intellectual influence of the Tea party seemed to be of great importance on Republican mindset. But the election was a failure for Tea Partiers, as a great majority of the candidates they used to back lost the election, such as Dan Liljenquist in Utah or Don Manzullo in Illinois.

Therefore, the endorsement strategy of the Tea Party, which is partly targeted against establishment Republican candidates, seems not to produce extraordinary results in general elections. However, endorsements do have a great impact on primaries and crystallize the Tea Party’s influence on the GOP’s ideology.

The rise of the Tea Party in 2010 was made possible by the ideological shift that the GOP has known since the 1960s. The Republican Party has shifted from a moderate platform to a conservative one. Today, the 1964 Republican platform2 would appear as a Democratic agenda. Some of the Republican proposals were to expand Social Security, to address water pollution and discrimination against minorities. On Social Security, Goldwater claimed “I favor a sound Social Security system and I want to see it strengthened. I want to see every participant receive all the benefits this system provides. And I want to see these benefits paid in dollars with real purchasing power.”

This shift towards a more conservative agenda can be dated to the 1964 presidential election when the candidate, Barry Goldwater was the first candidate to represent a new center of gravity in the Republican Party. Before 1968, the GOP was dominated by the eastern establishment; it then became dominated by men from the South and the West. This shift can be explained by the need for the Republican Party to adapt itself to an electoral base composed of Southerners and white suburbanites. This shift can be illustrated by the apparition of the abortion issue and the quest for lower taxes on the Republican platform. The renewed Republican ideology can be interpreted as the necessary fertile ground for the rise of the Tea Party because it made this type of ideas more acceptable and mainstream on the American political scene.

These days, the GOP appears as deeply fragmented, which doesn’t play in favor of the Tea Party. Since Obama’s reelection in 2012, the Tea Party has experienced some difficulties to make its voice heard within the party. The establishment of the Republican Party wishes to tame its different factions. As a dissenting voice, the Tea Party is one of the establishment’s first targets. Crises between the Tea Party and the establishment of the GOP have been numerous since 2010. The government shutdown in 2013 triggered some heated discussions within the party but the latest divisive issue was the new legislation passed by Indiana and Arkansas to change their “religious freedom” measures in order to prohibit anti-gay discrimination by businesses. This latest crisis shows that there is no consensus within the Republican Party on cultural and social issues. One thing is certain however: the Republican establishment intends to speak louder than the Tea Party.

The dynamic within the GOP doesn’t appear to be in favor of the Tea Party these days which prompts the following question: what can be the outcome for the movement and what will be its role in the 2016 election ?

The first three officially declared GOP primary candidates (Ted Cruz, Paul Rand, and Marco Rubio) all have links with the Tea Party as well as the new official candidate in the race, Ben Carson. Ted Cruz is often seen as one of the intellectual leaders of the Tea Party. During the 2012 Senate Elections campaign, he had been endorsed by many heavyweights of the GOP such as Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum. Being a major architect of the 2013 federal government shutdown strengthened his bonds with the party. The second candidate in the race, Rand Paul, became the first member of the Tea Party to be appointed to a national elective function on January 3rd 2011.  He is now focusing his campaign on a populist, anti-establishment platform to be in line with his Tea Party roots. Marco Rubio also owed the Tea Party for carrying the Florida senatorial election, as he holds conservative views on social and fiscal issues, the reason why he has been called the « crown prince » of the Tea Party movement3 . So the Tea Party doesn’t endorse just one candidate.

If both are seeking the Republican’ nomination, they are also looking for the Tea Party voters’ endorsement, especially since they are facing a new opponent, Ben Carson, who is running without experience or endorsement except from very conservatives circles linked to the Tea Party. His very conservative agenda and the fact that he is not part of the establishment gives him credit among Tea partiers, despite his lack of experience.

The great number of primary candidates affiliated with the Tea Party reveals the weight that the movement could play in the 2016 elections and the fact that it is seen as very appealing by the population. A March 2015 poll showed that 45 % of Republican voters feel close to Tea Party ideas. This figure raises the issue of the interdependence of the Republican Party and the Tea Party. Can the Tea Party survive without the Republican Party?

The Tea Party is facing a considerable dilemma: why stick with the Republican Party when they feel less and less represented by the Republican establishment ? Some people, such as Tom Tancredo, believe that unless the GOP makes structural changes, the Tea Party will distance itself from its natural ally. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, only time will tell if the alliance between the GOP and the Tea Party is here to last.

By Timotéo ROUCHON, Clarisse TEYSSANDIER and Cynthia TOROSJAN

1 The States of Indiana and Arkansas passed legislation stipulating that the state can’t create legislation that infringes on a person’s religious beliefs. This legislation created a controversy because the legislation was interpreted as a way for businesses and organizations to legally discriminate the LGBT community. Since then, the two states have amended the bill to prevent such discrimination.

2 Goldwater’s platform:


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