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.

Mitt Romney speaks to Tea Party supporters.
Mitt Romney speaks to Tea Party supporters in Michigan in February.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

The day after the election, FreedomWorks and its key state-to-state organizers dialed into a one-of-a-kind conference call. For the first time ever, they would be discussing a crushing defeat. Their “Take the Senate” campaign had ended with Democrats in greater control of the upper house. Their turnout game, powered by a new web-based canvassing app, was swatted aside by labor and the Democrats. Richard Mourdock, the Indiana politician who’d been with Tea Partiers since the 2009 Taxpayer March on Washington, had lost one of the party’s safest seats.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

And now John Boehner was selling them out. The speaker of the House had just jimmied open the door to “new revenue,” which conservatives hear—correctly, typically—as “new taxes.”

“People were upset,” remembers Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks’ director of state campaigns. “Does Boehner cave in to what Obama and Reid want to do, or does he at least stay relatively strong on these issues? He’s probably going to a lot of these Republican, Tea Party folks, and say: OK, guys, here’s what we need to do to stay in power. That’s the fear.”

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How does the Tea Party stop it? Good question. What else does the Tea Party want to halt? Better, more complicated question. The movement, which starts its second four-year term in February, was built on opposition to the president’s stimulus and health care law. There’s no real chance of a new stimulus bill, and the health care law is safe until at least 2017. In the foxhole, when the only goal was defeating Obama, there were no real disagreements among Tea Partiers and the rest of the conservative base. That’s over, too.

Over the last few days, as they’ve processed data from the election, the right’s Obama-era grass-roots groups are divided over what went wrong and what to do next. FreedomWorks’ get-out-the-vote app was called Political Gravity. It had been developed by American Majority, a grass-roots group run by Ned Ryun, which had its own offices in swing states and its own literature telling voters to save their children from the rampaging national debt. On Thursday, Ryun was downright dismissive of how the software had been used. Teams of Tea Partiers went to homes and tried to talk to residents about their terrific Senate candidates. If no one was home, they put information at the door.

“When you knock at a door, you’ve got to talk to people,” asked Ryun. “You dropped off 50,000 door-hangers? Great. All you did was waste trees.”

After an election where nothing seemed to work, you can hear the case made against almost everything. Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom coalition made it to the New York Times, because Reed talked a good game about mobilizing the sort of white evangelical voters who’d been pushed back into politics by the Tea Party. But the mobilization didn’t outmatch the Democrats. “Ralph Reed says he made 12 million robocalls?” asked Ryan. “Great. Who gives a rip?”

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