Is the Tea Party Losing Its Strength?


David Corn

What a surprise: The Tea Party is not as popular as it once was. That was part of the news contained in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week. (The other hardly shocking and bad-for-Democrats news: only 29 percent are inclined to vote for their current representative in Congress.) Fifty percent of the respondents said they hold an "unfavorable impression" of this conservative, anti-Obama, anti-government movement -- an increase from 39 percent in March (when the health care reform slugfest was under way). Those with a favorable view dropped from 41 to 36 percent, and those folks with no opinion fell from 20 percent to 14 percent. Put this all together, and it appears that the more Americans see of the Tea Party, the less they like it.

This makes sense. At first, the TP movement could be seen as a patriotic uprising with a time-tested and honorable moniker. And its original target was President Obama's health care overhaul -- a controversial move that many voters, independents especially, were wary of. But in recent weeks, the -- shall we say -- excesses of the Tea Party have been on display.

When Rand Paul won Kentucky's Republican Senate primary, he proudly declared, "I have a message from the Tea Party: we've come to take our government back." Paul, now the closest thing to a national spokesman for Tea Partyism, in the next few days proceeded to round out the usual Tea Party message by noting he did not support all of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and by saying that he believed Obama's pressure on BP, the despoiler of the Gulf of Mexico, was "un-American." Paul was simply sharing his true desire for small-government. But his remarks revealed the not-so-pretty libertarian underbelly of the leave-us-alone Tea Party movement and exposed its fundamental bias against using government to combat such wrongs as corporate pollution or racism. He looked like a John Bircher of the 1950s -- yet he was reflecting the current sentiments of his people.

More Election Coverage
- Women Win Big in Key Primaries
- Tuesday's Real Winners and Losers
- 'Comeback Kid' Lincoln Survives
- Nikki Haley Heads for Runoff in S.C.
- Tea Partier Will Face Reid in Nevada
- Army Vet Alvin Greene to Face DeMint
- Reid, Angle Vulnerable to Ridicule
- California's GOP 'Thelma & Louise'
- The Power of Palin Endorsements
- So Much for Conventional Wisdom
- The Right Wins, the Left Loses
- Elections Boost Tea Party, Women

In Nevada, the Tea Party darling and GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle called for abolishing the EPA, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and other agencies, and she proposed privatizing Social Security. Talking Points Memo reports that Angle is a supporter of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing group of soldiers and police officers who say they don't have to follow orders they believe are unconstitutional. She's also questioned whether alcohol should be legal. On Tuesday, Angle defeated Sue Lowden, a more mainstream GOP candidate, who earlier in the campaign suggested that Nevadans could barter chickens for medical services. (This Tea Party victory may afford Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a much better chance of winning reelection in Nevada this fall.) Elsewhere, Tea Party activists have been calling for repealing the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of senators. (Originally, the Constitution granted state legislatures the power to appoint senators.) Why would TPers want to do away with voting for senators? Supposedly, returning this authority to state lawmakers would weaken the power of the federal government and special interests. In reality, state legislatures are just as susceptible to special-interest lobbying, if not more so, and permitting state legislators to anoint senators would lead to extreme cronyism and oodles of back-room dealing. In other words, what the heck are these people thinking? Still, dumping the 17th Amendment has become a central tenet of Tea Partyism.

So is it any wonder that more Americans are now tossing the Tea Party aside? This inchoate, unorganized movement still has the ability to influence certain elections -- such as GOP primary contests in Nevada and Kentucky. But its reach may be severely limited. In California, the natural Tea Party candidate, state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, failed to ride any Tea Party wave. Instead, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina rebranded herself a true-blue (or red-hot) Tea Partier on the way to beating DeVore and former Rep. Tom Campbell in the Golden State's GOP Senate primary.

As Tea Party extremism becomes more obvious, its gravitational pull on the 2010 elections may lessen. (Scott Brown? Who's that?) The Tea Party label might even become a liability for Republican candidates looking to win over independent voters in the general election. (See Fiorina.) If there is low turn-out for the November elections, the Tea Partier could still pack a punch. An angry mob has the most potential in a smaller setting. Yet if the trend continues -- more Tea Party candidates saying more Tea Party things -- Republicans may not want a refill.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.