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The Splintered Tea Party

Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, co-authors of the acclaimed The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, made an appearance at Brown University this spring.

Skocpol argued, at the time, that the media - which considered the Tea Party so 2010 - was underestimating its continued influence. The Tea Party, she argued, had forced the Republican presidential primary - including ostensible moderate Mitt Romney - to the right.

It was a fair point. But I was a little skeptical in a blog post about the appearance. If the Tea Party is so influential, I wondered, why couldn't it nominate a true conservative in the relatively friendly confines of a GOP presidential primary?

After the election, my doubts have only grown more pronounced. Romney lost, of course, but so did some key Tea Party standard bearers - Congressman Allen West and Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock among them.

Well, Williamson is coming to town again, this time to participate in an Action Speaks discussion panel about movement conservatism. I conducted a Q&A with her in advance of her appearanceand you can read the full version in this week's Phoenix. But here's what she said in response to my big-picture question about whether the 2012 election marked a significant decline in the Tea Party's power:

It’s important to not treat the "Tea Party" as a monolithic force. It never was. As we point out in the book, there were three forces (the conservative media, a collection of pro-big business Republican elites, and grassroots conservatives) that leveraged one another in 2010, and that is what made the Tea Party so effective. All three of those groups still exist and are still very powerful in their own right. But their goals did not align as well in 2012. Conservatives faced a dilemma – at the national level, it would be difficult to have a candidate both be electable and hold the increasingly far-right opinions that are a mandatory part of being a Republican these days. Mitt Romney did his best to appease the Tea Party base – and that left him (and others like Akin and Mourdock) unelectable.

Obviously the label "Tea Party" has become less and less popular over time. But the power of the Tea Party forces in the Republican Party remained very strong all the way through the general election. Tea Party supporters are a small minority of the electorate. In national races, and moderate states and districts, the Tea Party was a detriment to the Republican Party. The interesting question is how the party will respond in the future.

It's an interesting point. But I'm not sure if I buy that the three forces she identifies were at such cross purposes this election. Certainly Fox News and the Tea Party were singing the same tune; Rupert Murdoch knows who is base is. And moneyed conservatives poured record amounts of cash into GOP campaigns this year.

But if these three groups are, in fact, at odds, I think that's significant, too. If the Tea Party requires all three to be a potent force, then their drift doesn't bode well for the movement's long-term potency.

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