With polls showing the movement’s popularity sagging, tea party members from across the country are warning that anyone who thinks they are sleeping in 2012 is in for a rude awakening come Election Day, when they plan to pick up where they left off in 2010 by bolstering their voices for limited government on Capitol Hill.
The goal, they say, is simple: Reinforce their numbers in the House and elect enough “constitutional conservatives” to end the Democrats’ six-year reign over the Senate.
“The Senate is at a tipping point,” said Ted Cruz, a tea-party-backed candidate who is seeking the seat being vacated by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican.
“There are, right now, a handful of strong, free-market, constitutional conservatives, and they are vastly outnumbered — outnumbered by the Democrats and, unfortunately, they are outnumbered by a lot of Republicans in the Senate, as well,” he said. “If we can grow the numbers in 2012 to 10 or 12 or 15 strong, free-market, constitutional conservatives who are ready to stand up and fight — that will change the United States.”
In 2010, the grass-roots movement strongly pushed — depending on who’s counting — about 10 Senate candidates. The group delivered stunning victories in knocking off veteran Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah, in primaries. The menu of successful candidates included fresh-faced conservatives Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah and non-politicians such as Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
But the group also pushed candidates who could win Republican primaries but flopped in general-election races that political analysts say the party could have won with more seasoned or mainstream candidates — most notably Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.
This time, tea partyers say, there are no liabilities on the field, just solid conservatives. Political observers tend to agree.
“Do I see ‘Christine O’Donnell’ in this group? No, not yet,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, referring to the unsuccessful Republican nominee for Senate in Delaware. “I want to see how some of these folks do and whether there are any upsets, which her victory was.”
With that as the backdrop, the almost 3-year-old movement is fielding candidates in about eight Senate races. Again, tea partyers are targeting some lions of the establishment, notably Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, a moderate Republican who has served in the upper chamber since 1977. Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock is looking to knock off Mr. Lugar in the Republican primary.
Mr. Lugar is a foreign-policy giant, but tea partyers have labeled him a “RINO” (“Republican in name only”) because of, among other things, his support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and President Obama’s two appointees to the Supreme Court — Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010.
“It’s time for Richard Lugar to go home and retire and bake cookies with his grandchildren,” Amy Kremer, head of the Tea Party Express, said bluntly.
Ms. Duffy said that at this point in the campaign season Mr. Lugar is the “only incumbent who looks truly in danger because of his tea party opponent.”
Mr. Mourdock said that the incumbent has been “disrespectful” to the movement — Mr. Lugar raised the O’Donnell-Angle scenario in a CNN interview just last weekend — and has voted for “things they are against, which is the ever-growing and enlarging government.”
He also suggested that Mr. Lugar’s tendency toward bipartisanship has gotten in the way of good governance.
“I’m not interested in the collegiality,” Mr. Mourdock said. “I’m interested in making the right plans to save the economy, which is in fact to save the country.”
Other potential tea party pickups include an empty seat in closely divided Wisconsin, where Sen. Herb Kohl, a Democrat, is retiring.
The Club for Growth, the influential anti-spending group, as well as Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Mr. Paul already have embraced the candidacy of former Rep. Mark Neumann, a tea party favorite who lost his 2010 gubernatorial primary bid to Scott Walker.
Mr. Neumann faces state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, who has faced stiff criticism over statements he has made in support of Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul.
The jury, though, is still out on the level of influence the tea party movement will have in the coming elections, where the stakes will be higher as Mr. Obama fights for his political survival.
The list of potential targets seems to have already dwindled, with tea partyers conceding that it could be hard to oust such veterans as Sens. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.
Mrs. Snowe has been helped enormously by an endorsement from Gov. Paul LePage, who won the state’s top office with tea party support. Mr. Hatch, who has moved to the right in recent years, also dodged a bullet when Rep. Jason Chaffetz announced in August that he would not challenge the 36-year incumbent.
Tea party groups are also split over whom to support in the Nebraska primary for the seat being vacated by Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat. Some are lining up behind state Treasurer Don Stenberg, and others backing state Attorney General Jon Bruning.
Mark J. Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University, said that the 2010 election was probably the “peak” of the tea party movement and that by the end of 2012, “we’ll all be talking again about how the movement contributed positively to some GOP campaigns and then relegated other Republicans to defeat.”
He also noted that the different structural conditions of the 2012 race likely will weaken tea party impact.
“The movement had a big impact in a lower-turnout midterm election cycle, under conditions ideally suited to a committed minority of voters. Even under those conditions, tea party insistence on ideological purity consigned the GOP to defeat in some very winnable Senate campaigns,” he said.
“For 2012, the movement’s impact will be diluted by higher voter-turnout rates and the probable lack of a genuine tea partyer as the GOP presidential nominee. Whether [Mitt] Romney or even [Newt] Gingrich, I don’t see the top of the GOP ticket anchoring tea party enthusiasm.”
A Pew Research poll, meanwhile, also shows that compared with 2010, the movement has become better known and less popular, both nationally and in congressional districts represented by tea-party-backed members.
But David Kirkham, co-founder of the Utah Tea Party and potential challenger to the state’s Republican governor, shrugged off the findings.
He said “our greatest hope” is that the political world “underestimates our resolve to get responsible and accountable government.”
“We are not going anywhere,” Mr. Kirkham said, adding that his group has been working behind the scenes in Utah to turn state lawmakers against immigration-reform legislation providing guest-worker status for undocumented immigrants and to repeal a rollback of Utah’s open-records laws.
Ms. Duffy said the tea party’s first true test of 2012 likely will be in Texas, where Mr. Cruz, a former state solicitor general who has argued nine cases before the Supreme Court, is set to face off in a March 6 primary election against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the favorite, and others.
But she said that there is not a ton of evidence that Mr. Cruz has caught fire in the state, where it costs a candidate major money to raise his name ID and get his message out over the airwaves.
“Texas is — unlike certainly Kentucky, and to a lesser extent Florida — an inefficient state in terms of TV,” Ms. Duffy said, estimating the cost of running television advertisements across the sprawling state’s 15 to 20 major TV markets at between $1.5 million and $2 million per week.
“It is a hard place to get yourself known,” she said.
Mr. Cruz, though, is confident he can raise the money necessary to increase his name ID and win — thanks in large part to local and national tea party support. Freedomworks, led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, and the Club for Growth endorsed him. He also has won the backing of such out-of-state tea party favorites as Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Mr. DeMint, Mr. Paul and Mr. Lee.
Conservative columnist George Will wrote this summer that Mr. Cruz is “as good as it gets” for a political candidate and relayed the story of how Mr. Cruz’s father fought with rebels against 1950s Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista before he was captured and escaped to the United States with $100 sewed into his underwear.
Mr. Cruz said his campaign is “building the strongest grass-roots army the state of Texas has ever seen.”
“We have an overwhelming advantage among tea party members, among women, among conservative leaders, and that army on the ground consists of the activists who knock on doors, who send emails and who talk to friends and family and who win a Republican primary,” he said.