Despite some 2014 successes, tea party is fading as a brand


COLUMBUS, Miss. — He’s just the kind of candidate the tea party likes: deeply conservative, an outsider, and a challenge to the Washington establishment.

Yet Chris McDaniel rarely utters the words “tea party” as he campaigns against Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., for a primary runoff next Tuesday for the Republican Senate nomination.

“What you see here is so much larger than the tea party. We are conservatives, constitutional conservatives,” McDaniel said. “If you look at the people who have stepped in to endorse us, they come from every area of conservative thought, not just the tea party.”

Indeed, just five years after it burst onto the national political scene as a grass-roots force, the tea party is fading as a useful brand.

After rising up in protests against President Barack Obama in 2009, the tea party helped elect 87 new members to the House of Representatives in 2010. Members formed a tea party caucus in the House. The tea party started giving a formal response to the president’s State of the Union address, alongside the Republican response.

At its peak in 2010, 61 percent of Republicans supported the tea party, according to Gallup. Today, that’s plunged to 41 percent, and among all Americans there’s 22 percent support.

So far, most of the tea party challenges to incumbents and establishment favorites this year have failed.

The candidate who’s often cited as the most successful tea party candidate is Virginia’s David Brat. But Brat, who upset House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary, got his boost from conservative talk-show hosts and the website Breitbart.com, not national tea party groups.

And the same night Cantor fell, Sen. Lindsey Graham beat his Republican nomination rivals in South Carolina, including a tea party hopeful, in a landslide.

Jenny Beth Martin, the president of one group, Tea Party Patriots, said her movement remained strong. While its support number is lower, she noted that “it’s higher than Congress.”

The brand’s problem, she said, isn’t unusual for an insurgent movement. “You get attacked when you do well,” she said. “We have not just Democrats attacking us, but a lot of Republicans.”

The tea party is following a familiar pattern in American political history. A movement springs to life, upsets some establishment figures and the major political parties and well-funded outside groups embrace and co-opt its ideas.

The tea party became a victim of its own disdain for top-down structure. Several groups claim the name, and none has a single well-known national figure to act as spokesman.

“There’s no official clearinghouse. You can be anything you want and say, ‘I’m with the tea party,’ and no one is going to correct you,” said Adam Brandon, the executive vice president of the conservative lobbying group FreedomWorks.

Like other establishment candidates this year, Cochran tried to paint the tea party and others in that camp as extreme and dangerous. Such candidates recall how, in 2010 and 2012, the tea party sometimes embraced candidates viewed as extremists or oddballs in states where the GOP had been favored to win.

Instead, Democrats beat Republican Senate nominees and tea party favorites such as Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell (“I am not a witch”), Missouri’s Todd Akin (“legitimate rape”) and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock (even life that begins because of rape is “something God intended to happen”).

The tea party candidates have also faded because mainstream Republicans learned to go along with some of their ideas. Tea party positions are often now the party establishment positions — fierce opposition to the Affordable Care Act, for example.