With Rep. Michele Bachmann’s announcement that she’ll leave Congress in 2014, colleagues and allies are left to wonder who will take her place as the tea party's standard-bearer in the House.
They aren’t sure yet, but they do know one thing: There won’t be another Michele Bachmann.
Credited with energizing the tea party movement in its early stages, and for giving it prominence on Capitol Hill with her founding of the House Tea Party Caucus in 2010, the Minnesota Republican’s charisma, media savvy and talent for incendiary comments vaulted her from backbencher to household name before her ill-fated run for president in 2012.
“She’s a beautiful woman, very articulate and has a really strong voice,” mused Rep. John Fleming, R-La. “Here I am, a guy, and I’m in the same room as Michele Bachmann, and her voice carries twice as well as mine does.”
Bachmann embraced her persona as a divisive and polarizing public figure, taking pride in being disliked by members of her own party and taking extreme policy stands, such as opposing any increase in the debt ceiling, that put her at odds with GOP leadership and the Washington establishment.
Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots said Bachmann had to have a “titanium spine” and said that any future Tea Party Caucus leader would need one, too.
Fleming isn’t sure, however, that it’s all that helpful to talk about finding a successor to Bachmann in Bachmann terms, because the movement’s stakeholders are likely to come up short.
“She brought to the table some qualities that are very special and unique,” Fleming said. “If I were to just have to guess right now, is there one member who could easily fit that bill, I would say it would be difficult to come up with that person.”
Tea party leaders of national groups and allies of Bachmann on Capitol Hill tend to agree with Fleming: Bachmann could be the last of her kind.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, they say. Rather, it might mean that the tea party has evolved into something different; Bachmann’s exit, while lamentable, could facilitate that evolution.
“The movement has matured,” said Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express. “Her role was moving the tea party from a protest movement to a political movement and giving it viability on the Hill.”
Now, Russo added, it isn’t just Bachmann leading the tea party army in the House — there's a group ready to step up.
Niger Innis, TheTeaParty.net’s chief strategist, agreed but added that a whole new kind of tea party leader could emerge as well — perhaps even out of the leadership or establishment ranks.
“That person this time around may have a lower profile nationally ... the type of individual who does not shun the spotlight but doesn’t necessarily seek it to the same degree as one might expect,” Innis said. “They will bury their head into really moving some legislation forward, rolling up their sleeves and diving into real policy discussions and making sure that there is a tea party imprimatur on signature legislation in the House of Representatives.”
A tea party leader in this mold would be significant given the difficulty the House caucus has had in translating its bark into bite. The time could finally be right for a hybrid insider-outsider leader.
Indeed, the Tea Party Caucus had some soul-searching to do, even with Bachmann sticking around. The effect of the caucus on the day-to-day operations of the House has been minimal. Before the IRS scandal broke a few weeks ago and put a spotlight back on the tea party, the caucus website hadn’t been updated since July 2012.
But a new caucus chairman with closer ties to the leadership could be a hard sell.
“I don’t have many reasons to trust people in the current Republican establishment,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said. “None of them have been active in tea party issues. None of them.”
Huelskamp said his own name has been “bandied about” as a possible heir to the caucus leadership helm but he demurred when asked whether it was a role he would actively seek. He would fit the bill of a Bachmann-type leader, with his antagonistic relationship with House Republican leadership that got him kicked off the Budget Committee at the start of the 113th Congress.
Other names that have come up as possible successors to Bachmann are Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a consistently vocal tea party politician who is currently spearheading the House conservative pushback against the Senate’s immigration overhaul legislation; Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, another tea party firebrand; and Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., who had filed to reconstitute the Tea Party Caucus earlier this year before finding out that Bachmann wanted to continue leading it.
Bachmann doesn’t retire for more than a year, of course, and in the meantime tea party attention on Capitol Hill has increasingly turned to the Senate. In the other chamber, a number of Republican rising stars in the tea party movement are receiving considerable national attention for their unapologetic style of politicking, among them Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Fleming, meanwhile, thinks it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Washington didn’t have any centralized tea party figurehead going forward.
“Michele became a natural leader, but I don’t think we have to require or force that situation,” he said. “I want to keep this as a franchise, a franchise of many different movements across the country with a common purpose: to follow the constitution, to limit spending in Washington and limit the role of government.”