Tea party activists are struggling to rally behind a single presidential contender as disparate groups with conflicting priorities balance candidate viability with conservative purity on policies that extend well beyond the spending concerns that spawned the movement just two years ago.
And Republican presidential campaigns are actively courting the grass-roots conservative movement for the passion, money and army of volunteers that fueled massive Republican gains last fall.
“Whoever the Republican nominee is, if they want to defeat [President Barack] Obama, they need to have the support of the tea party movement,” Tim Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant told Roll Call.
Reading between the lines, of course, one sees the suggestion that a GOP presidential candidate would not survive tea party hostility. And looking back at the last election cycle, it’s apparent the tea party is perhaps better suited to tear down candidates than to propel them to victory.
That was certainly the case with 2010 Senate races in Delaware, Alaska and Colorado.
“They weren’t all that successful at getting folks nominated or elected, but they were really good at taking out moderate or establishment types,” said a top staffer on a Republican presidential campaign. “It may be the same thing in 2012.”
Mitt Romney hopes not.
As the field begins to solidify, the former Massachusetts governor has drawn the ire of national tea party groups more than any other presidential contender.
Outspoken tea party ally FreedomWorks, under the direction of former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), is among the most active Romney agitators. Romney opponents on the right cite the universal health care law bearing his signatpure in Massachusetts, the measure that inspired Obama’s health care overhaul that activists loathe.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, told Roll Call that his group has been hard-pressed to find Romney supporters on the ground. “All of the candidates, except for Romney, are talking our language,” Kibbe said, adding that tea partyers have been frustrated with former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
The Tea Party Patriots also haven’t shied away from bashing Romney, the frontrunner in national polls who battled similar claims that he was not conservative enough during his 2008 bid.
“As national coordinators of the largest tea party group in the country, we’ve heard little support for Romney in the movement as we interact daily with local coordinators and activists,” said Mark Meckler, co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. “We believe it’s premature to say whether anyone would support him if he were the nominee, and anyone who says that tea partyers would support him is certainly not speaking for the movement at large.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.