Chuck Henderson of the Flint Hills Tea Party rumbles down the highway into Topeka, ready for another chance to promote his low-tax, small-government, pro-Constitution message.
Tea party candidates have struggled to win elections this year. Any chance he’s ready to give up?
“Heck no!” the Manhattan, Kan., engineer shouts over whistling car noise. “We’ve won some and lost some. But it all falls into the column of lessons learned.”
Five years after their broad grass-roots movement rocked town halls and talk shows across the country, tea party members like Henderson view the unfolding 2014 election season with a mixture of pride and frustration.
They’re winning the message war, they say — most Republican candidates are now walking, talking and acting like tea party acolytes.
At the same time, though, GOP primary voters have largely stuck with familiar faces, leaving tea party insurgents in the dust.
Indeed, with just a few exceptions, tea party candidates have struggled for a foothold this year. Milton Wolf’s Senate candidacy in Kansas remains a long shot with just 11 weeks left until the primary, and he lost a challenge to Sen. Pat Roberts’ Kansas residency last week.
Tea party candidates in North Carolina and Texas fell short earlier this year. House Speaker John Boehner crushed tea party opponents this month. This Tuesday, tea party campaigns in Kentucky and Georgia may end in defeat.
Political pros explain the setbacks several ways.
Tea party candidates are often inexperienced and sometimes underfunded. More traditional Republicans — hungry for a win — are emphasizing electability over philosophy, particularly after high-profile losses in 2012.
Some in the GOP have made that strategy explicit. Boehner, for example, stamped out tea party resistance to extending the debt ceiling last winter, worried that his party’s prospects would be damaged by adherence to the tea party’s preference for default.
“I think they’re misleading their followers,” Boehner said late last year. “They’re pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be, and frankly I just think that they’ve lost all credibility.”
The statement encouraged some GOP mainstream candidates to resist tea party pressure and win.
But other GOP candidates — fearing potential tea party anger — have pursued another approach. They have craftily adopted tea party rhetoric, leaving movement conservatives with little room to maneuver to the right.
Repeal Obamacare? Check. Support gun rights? Check. Anti-spending, anti-Washington, anti-government? Check, check, check.
“That tells you the tea party has a winning message,” said former Missouri House speaker Carl Bearden. “Because mainstream Republicans are co-opting it.”
The theft of an insurgent message by more establishment politicians is a familiar story in both parties, said St. Louis University political science professor Adam Myers.
From populists and collectivists in the early 20th century to the 1960s anti-war movement, from 1980s evangelicals to the tea party, outsider uprisings either migrate into a mainstream party — where they have some chance to affect policy — or they die.
“This is a story we see over and over again,” Myers said. “The political parties absorb these dissident movements.”
That dynamic has encouraged many in the tea party.
“The tea party has already won,” former Tea Party Express chairwoman Amy Kremer told CNN, “because we have changed the narrative and the political landscape in Washington.”
At the same time, others say, the potential for disappointment is high. If mainstream Republicans win elections on a tea party platform, then fail to execute that agenda, tea party frustration may grow.
Most tea party Republicans still think congressional majorities will simply repeal Obamacare, for example, a task that may be more difficult than it looks.
“If you have in 2017 a Republican government,” said conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru, “and it doesn’t get rid of Obamacare, then I think that is a huge political disaster for the party.”
But “your chances of doing it are stronger if you’ve got a real health care alternative,” he added. “That’s been something both the establishment and the tea partiers have really not focused on.”
That fear of potentially broken promises means tea partiers will continue to field candidates, some Republicans said, and may even win some races. As six states prepare for primaries Tuesday, there is evidence of movement in some states to more conservative Republicans.
Ben Sasse’s primary victory last week in Nebraska — a victory aided by outside tea party support — may boost dissidents locked in other campaigns, Republicans believe. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is now facing a tea party challenge in Virginia.
In some cases, outside tea party groups are providing enormous financial help for candidates. Groups backing Sasse, including the Senate Conservatives Fund, Freedomworks for America and the Club for Growth, spent more than $1.4 million before the primary, tops among GOP candidates in the Senate primary.
Patriot Majority USA has spent more than $250,000 to help Matt Bevin’s tea party challenge against Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. The Senate Conservatives Fund has spent $135,000 on Wolf’s behalf.
But fundraising and campaign spending by tea party groups has been controversial, even among tea party supporters. Some members are worried tea party organizations are spending more time raising money — and paying officers hefty salaries — than they are electing conservatives to office.
In April, The Washington Post reported that one tea party political action committee had raised $7.4 million since the start of 2013 but had only spent roughly $185,000 directly helping candidates.
Officials with the group defended the spending as necessary for a growing organization.
There is also concern that some tea party leaders — always a squishy concept in a movement that deeply distrusts authority — have strayed from standard tea party orthodoxy.
You can find tea party support for immigration reform, for example. Some conservative candidates have argued for a higher minimum wage and an appeal to blue collar workers. Those stances would have been inconceivable five years ago.
Those shifts have angered some on the political right. Thursday, the Post reported, a handful of conservative leaders met to talk about ways of pushing mainstream GOP candidates into more tea party-friendly positions.
Others tea partiers say full success is only possible if they win the message battle and put true conservatives in House and Senate seats.
“You can be successful over time if you’re dedicated to the cause and you keep working at it,” said Kris Van Meteren, a former director of the Kansas Republican Party and now a consultant.
“People who are new to politics are their own worst enemy in that they jump into the game, they’re all gung ho, they take a couple of losses and they go home,” he said. “The conservative movement in Kansas is a witness to what happens when you actually stick it out and keep fighting.”
Chuck Henderson of the Flint Hills Tea Party has no intention of going home.
“We’ve gone to work learning … the bells and levers and chains and pulleys of the system,” he said.
“Now we’re doing the work.”