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With incumbents to protect, the Tea Party is now playing defense

With incumbents to protect, the Tea Party is now playing defense

Adolescence is never easy, especially for awkward outsiders still unsure of their place in the social hierarchy. Take the Tea Party. On the one hand, it’s under attack by an openly hostile Republican establishment, which blames the uncouth party crashers for ruining what should have been a glorious 2012 electoral rout. (Never mind that Karl Rove couldn’t buy a win for his establishment pets either.) More broadly, the movement’s sputtering public approval coupled with some high-profile losses—including key failures in this month’s Texas primaries—have much of the political world asking if the conservative insurrection is already over.

At the same time, Tea Partyers have enjoyed enough success (Matt Salmon, Justin Amash, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee…) that they now have concrete territory to defend. “Whereas before you were trying to get your guy elected, now you’ve got to start protecting them,” observes Adam Brandon, executive vice president of the Tea-Party aligned FreedomWorks, which this week endorsed its first batch of incumbents for the midterms.

For a grassroots phenomenon defined by its throw-the-bums-out rage, this keep-some-of-the-bums-in mandate requires strategic adjustments—or at least more expansive thinking. Loyal incumbents must be protected, while disappointing ones are reassessed and even cut loose. (Are you paying attention, Senator Rubio?) With increasingly fierce pushback from the GOP establishment, new sources of funding for Tea Party rebels become critical. And, as the movement seeks to prove its staying power and relevance, the eternal tension between pragmatism and idealism must be periodically revisited.

It used to be so easy, say Tea Party leaders. Back in 2010, expectations were low and simply getting attention was a victory of sorts. “2010 was about grabbing people by the lapels and shaking the living death out of them,” says Taylor Budowich, executive director of Tea Party Express. “We were pushing back against Republicans and Democrats, saying, ‘Both of you have become complacent about out-of-control spending.’”

For it’s part, the GOP was caught flat-footed by the rebellion. “[Former Sen. Bob] Bennett didn’t see Mike Lee coming,” says Brandon. “[Former Sen. Dick] Lugar may have seen Richard Mourdock coming, but he was slow to react.”

Those days are long gone, as Tea Partyers confront a newly mobilized enemy in their efforts to unseat Republican fixtures like Mitch McConnell and Thad Cochran. “They’re circling the wagons now,” says Brandon. “Tactics are changing. K Street and the establishment guys are fighting back.”

More troubling to movement leaders, GOP moneyed interests are taking aim at Tea Party lawmakers deemed disruptive and bad for the brand. Rep. Justin Amash’s hard line on the debt ceiling, for instance, outraged key business interests, including the Chamber of Commerce, which have lined up behind hisprimary challenger, Brian Ellis. Tea Party Express is keeping a close eye on the race, and FreedomWorks has vowed to defend Amash “punch-for-punch.”  “Five years ago, I never would have imagined the Republican Party would be coming after people the Tea Party had gotten elected,” says Keli Carender, the national grassroots coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. “It still shocks me.”  

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