Why Did the Tea Party Fail?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 9 2012 6:48 PM

Why the Tea Party Failed

And why its next battle will be with the GOP.

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Americans for Prosperity, David Koch’s group, spent tens of millions of dollars on a flashy ground game. I observed it in action, twice. Like the Romney campaign, it flopped in every swing state. “We’re looking closely at our own program, and we’re analyzing how the left ran their operation, as we often have in the past,” said Americans for Prosperity spokesman Levi Russell. “I can tell you that one major goal of the field program was to identify and recruit new activists/volunteers. That was very successful. Our membership grew by around 400,000 members, largely due to the personal contact of our people on the ground.”

And that’s where the uncertainty comes in. If there are new Tea Party ground troops, how do they differ from Ralph Reed’s ground troops? How do they differ from generic Republicans? In 2010, the Tea Party became an interest group inside the GOP. The party blamed them for spoiling some primaries by nominating loser candidates, but even then, they were working inside the party.

FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity are going to keep working for a Congress with fewer Democrats and more Republicans. But they disagree with the other elements of the GOP’s base about what kinds of Republicans they want. All of the Tea Partiers I talked to this week led with one piece of post-election spin: That Republicans could not win without cracking into the Latino vote.

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“We’ve been working with a group of Spanish-speaking Tea Party people in Florida,” said Jenny Beth Martin, chairwoman of the coalition group Tea Party Patriots. “In Wisconsin, people were putting material out in Spanish, reaching the Spanish-speaking community. Our idea of freedom resonates across party lines and across the party divide.”

That’s one take on the problem. The other take: Republicans will need to resist some elements in their base and pass immigration legislation that wins over Hispanics.

“If the Republicans were smart, in January, maybe they’d come out with that bill and win some of that support in exchange for some of the Tancredo-style support,” said FreedomWorks’s Steinhauser. “The left saw the future and built a demographic coalition among people who don’t maybe necessarily agree. You lose some of your hard-core supporters and you pick up new ones.”

For the first time, there’s an issue that could pit the GOP’s best-organized and best-funded grass-roots against other parts of the party base. Talk radio helped kill immigration legislation in 2007. Some of the Tea Party’s leaders wanted that legislation to survive. Dick Armey, the former GOP majority leader who now chairs FreedomWorks, was warning Republicans to “get off this goofiness,” stop talking about a border fence, and pass the bill.

David and Charles Koch, and other businessmen who’ve discovered politics in the Tea Party area, are far more simpatico to immigration reform than, say Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin. In 2007, Iowa Rep. Steve King fought reform so hard that he brought a small model of a border fence to the floor of the House, to show how ready-made it could be. In 2009, King was linking arms with Dick Armey. King will be in D.C. come January. So will FreedomWorks. And for the first time, they completely disagree about how they can win the country.