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Vote iQ Hot Topics: Tea Party History

Lacking a unifying organization or singular leadership, the Tea Party has a history as diverse and decentralized as the movement itself.  Tea imagery has been part of the conservative anti-tax movement for at least two decades.—the Boston colonists dumping of British tea into Boston Harbor in protest of tea taxes in 1773 has long been a touchstone for Americans who feel their own government now overtaxes them.  In 2007, libertarian Ron Paul held a “tea party” fundraiser on the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, though the theme was not a prominent feature in his 2008 presidential campaign.

Republicans have traditionally found political success by labeling Democrats as big taxers and reckless spenders, and criticism of Barack Obama along these lines began early in his candidacy for president.  Though Obama campaigned on broad tax cuts for most Americans—with a tax hike for the top tier—conservatives feared the worst after the 2008 election results produced an incoming Democratic president with large majorities in both houses of Congress. 

In the early months of Obama’s presidency, conservative grassroots groups held protests against the previous fall’s bank bailout, the large Reinvestment Act stimulus bill, and the perceived threat of increased taxation.  Many Tea Party activists consider Keli Carender of Seattle to have held the first Tea Party rally, protesting the “pork” in the stimulus bill.  In subsequent rallies held by Carender and others, tea bags were occasionally used as props, but did not become a central theme until Rick Santelli, a CNBC business news personality, angrily protested the Obama administration’s announced plan to assist mortgage-holders in the course of an appearance on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.  His call for a “tea party” quickly became a YouTube sensation after it was featured on the front page of the Drudge Report.

After the Santelli clip became an Internet hit, the loosely connected network of anti-stimulus protests rapidly adopted the “tea party” theme as a primary feature.  On April 15, Tax Day, these Tea Party groups held around 800  protests around the country, though estimates of total turnout varied considerably.  The Tax Day protests were widely covered by the news media, particularly Fox News, and the Tea Party movement entered the public consciousness.  Despite this, the public remained largely supportive of the stimulus spending package.

Sporadic anti-tax and spending protests continued throughout the summer, but in July the movement entered a new phase as health care reform came to the forefront of congressional and public debate.  While the attendance at these anti-health care reform rallies were relatively small (significantly smaller than the rallies favoring immigration reform), they continued to receive extensive media coverage.  Many Tea Party groups began to encourage members to attend town halls during Congress’s summer recess, leading to televised incidents in 2009 of members being berated by some of their constituents.  The intensity of pressure began to worry moderate Democrats from vulnerable districts., complicating the party’s effort to pass healthcare reform.

In September 2009, larger organizations began to emerge out of the disparate movement.  On September 12, the Taxpayer March on Washington was held, organized by the Tea Party Express, Fox News host Glen Beck’s 9.12 Project, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s (R-TX) FreedomWorks, and other groups.  Tens of thousands of protesters marched on the Capitol to protest taxes, federal spending, health care reform, and other generally conservative issues. 

The frequency of protests abated somewhat in subsequent months as some grassroots organizers began to object to what they perceived as increasing attempts by established conservative groups to take control of the movement.  The Tea Party Express received criticism by virtue of its ties to the Republican Party and its lavish sums paid to Republican consultants.  On Election Day in November, mainstream Republican candidates won governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, and a Tea Party-backed candidate in a special U.S. House election in New York who had driven out the establishment Republican candidate lost to his Democratic opponent in a heavily conservative district, prompting some on the left to openly wonder if the Tea Party movement was losing steam.

Democrats in the Senate passed their version of the sweeping health care reform bill in December, but waited until after the holiday recess to pass the bill in the House.  In January 2010, Republican Scott Brown surprised the political world by winning the Massachusetts seat formerly occupied by Senator Edward Kennedy.  Brown’s victory emboldened Republicans and convinced many Democrats that health care reform was dead.  But Brown was careful to keep the movement at arm’s length.  While Tea Party enthusiasm for him was a significant factor in his fundraising success outside of Massachusetts, he declined an offer from Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin to campaign for him. 

In February, the Tea Party Nation organization held a National Tea Party Convention with the participation of several, but not all, Tea Party groups.  Admission tickets cost $549 and keynote speaker Sarah Palin was reportedly paid $100,000 for her appearance.  Two elected officials, Reps. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), withdrew at the last minute, after hinting that their appearance would perhaps put them in violation of congressional ethics rules.

In March, the health care reform bill, the focus of much of the Tea Party movement’s ire for months, finally passed Congress.  Protests during the final stages of congressional debate were marred by ugly incidents in which racial and homophobic slurs were allegedly hurled at leading Democratic congressmen walking by.  One member of Congress said he was spat upon.  The protests were in vain and on March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the health care legislation into law.  (See Vote iQ’s Hot Topics analysis of the legislation here.)

In April 2010, Tea Party groups around the country held another massive Tax Day protest at nearly 2,000 locations.  Attendance estimates vary, but the total attendance appears comparable to 2009’s protests, belying claims that the movement was losing steam.  In May, the Tea Party movement claimed their biggest-yet political scalp, by defeating the renomination attempt of three-term Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT), a reliable conservative who nonetheless ran afoul of the Tea Party by attempting to work across party lines on issues like health care.  However, the victory came in a state party convention, and did not reflect the ability of the movement to defeat an establishment candidate in a statewide primary. 

In June, a number of Tea Party candidates won their Republican party primaries.  Sharron Angle won the Republican nomination for the seat held by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) ; Rand Paul won the Repiublican Party’s nomination to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), though his rival was backed by the Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell;  Nikki Haley, with a strong endorsement from Sarah Palin,  won the Republican nomination for governor of South Carolina.  Some observers suggest that the Republican chances are, in fact, weaker with these Tea Party candidates on the ballot.  The movement remains decentralized and Tea Party candidates often compete amongst themselves, diluting their support in contested party primaries.  The real impact of the movement will be measured in November.

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