'Tea party' ticket underscores uncertainty about movement's next steps

07/16/2010 08:54 AM

After playing a major role in helping Rand Paul win the Republican U.S. Senate nomination, some within the tea party movement are now looking for an encore in next year’s governor’s race.

Tea party organizers propped up signs against the capitol at the "Freedom Festival" rally on July 10 at the state Capitol in Frankfort.

A slate of candidates for governor and lieutenant governor is expected to form as early as today with an announcement on Leland Conway’s radio show on Lexington’s WLAP-630 AM. (UPDATE 11:58 a.m. — The announcement will likely be next week now, Conway said.) David Adams, who ran Paul’s primary campaign, has said he will manage this ticket.

But the development has brought to the surface a litany of questions of whether the tea party can turn the corner from grassroots movement to political organization and whether its supporters would even want it to take that next step.

“I do not believe any person can stand up and claim to be the tea party candidate or the tea party ticket,” said Marcus Carey, a Northern Kentucky lawyer and publisher of the conservative BluegrassBulletin.com. “Quite frankly, I think anyone who does that loses a significant number of tea party supporters in the process.”

Carey, who has followed the tea party closely for the last year, said one of the major concepts that tea party supporters coalesced around last year was frustration with political party machinery. As a result, the movement was effective in getting behind candidates who share the supporters’ values and philosophies, but it was not meant to be its own political apparatus.

“People will reject what I would call the usurpation of the tea party name,” Carey said.

Conway, too, said the yet-to-be announced slate faces a tough road to establish credibility among the movement’s supporters.

“This ticket is good, but they risk a lot by claiming the tea party banner before the tea party knows them,” Conway said.

And just because the tea party played a major role in Paul’s Republican primary win this spring, doesn’t mean that future candidates can use that as a template, said  Brian Goettl, the Jessamine County Attorney and a frequent speaker at tea party events.

“I think that the problem anyone will have at this point is that they’re already later in the cycle than Rand Paul was when he started his run,” Goettl said. Paul began attending tea party events in April 2009 —13 months before the GOP U.S. Senate primary. A gubernatorial ticket that forms now will have 10 months before the election.

“I don’t see there’s going to be that many more tea party events in the coming year,” Goettl said, meaning there will be fewer chances for those candidates to connect with prospective supporters. Plus, Paul started with a nationally-known name thanks largely to his father’s 2008 presidential bid and a built-in fund-raising network.

The comparisons to Paul also means a “tea party” ticket’s fate could be tied to how Paul fares in the November election. A loss then would sap much of the perceived power from the tea party movement.

“He is the face of the tea party across the country,” Goettl said. “Your big gamble right now is if he says something in the fall when people are really paying attention that just wipes him out of it.”

Jim Waters, director of policy and communications for the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, said there still would be room for the tea party to take the next step as a political force regardless of how Paul does.

“If he were to lose, that could cause a tea party to double down and really work hard on the state level,” Waters said. “I think there is some evidence to that is one good thing about the state office the tea party has done is it has created more competition for seats in the House and the state Senate.”

That’s true. But challengers who billed themselves as “tea partiers” running against legislative incumbents didn’t fare well this spring. Only two incumbent state lawmakers lost their parties’ nomination and the tea party wasn’t a factor in either.

That brings the question back: What is the core of the political power the tea party has?

“They are basically a committee of concerned voters any candidate will have to listen to if they want their vote,” Carey said.

So the best way for a gubernatorial ticket or any candidate to tap into tea party energy, he said, would be to hammer on the issues most of the supporters who gravitated to the movement care most about: eliminating government debt, cutting spending and legislative term limits, to name a few.

Goettl said he still hopes the tea party can move to the next level by amplifying their grassroots activism with donations. He recently has been speaking at tea party rallies about a concept he calls the “tea party money tree” in which all of the supporters and those who agree with the main messages of the movement should give $5 over the next five months to the candidates in their area who best match their philosophies.

“My speech didn’t say ‘Give to a Republican or give to any specific candidate.’ But look at the candidate who best fits your values and can take that to Washington, D.C.,” Goettl said. But it’s up to the individuals to decide for themselves who those candidates are — the tea party movement won’t make that decision for anyone, he added.

So even if a ticket forms under the billing that they are the “tea party” slate, by the nature of this movement, the people will decide that for themselves.

- Ryan Alessi


Subscribe to email updates.

Subscribe and get the latest political intelligence delivered to your inbox.