The Tea Party—the collective name for a wide range of right-wing activist groups, well-funded Washington-based organizations and local radicals—is not doing well in 2014, and that portends ill for would-be 2016 presidential candidates in the Republican Party who intend to rely on Tea Party support against more establishment-backed candidates. Still, in the GOP’s base, the Tea Party is the most passionate, fired-up (Benghazi! IRS! Obamacare!) part of the party, giving it an outsized influence—especially in Republican primary contests.
But it’s precisely in those contests where, in 2014, the Tea Party is losing big.
Figuring out how strong is the amorphous entity called “the Tea Party” is not easy. One can’t join it officially, for the most part, and paradoxically (for pollsters) some people who support the Tea Party ideologically and in their voting patterns may not consider themselves members or supporters when asked by a pollster. According to a recent Gallup poll, 41 percent of Republicans consider themselves “supporters” of the Tea Party—but that’s down sharply from 61 percent in 2010. (Nationally, among all voters, support for the Tea Party stands at 22 percent, down from a high of 32 percent in 2010.) And, according to Gallup, Tea Party types are far more focused on the traditionally low turnout primary elections in 2014 and on the general election later this year, with 52 percent of Tea Partiers saying that they are “enthusiastic” about 2014, compared to just 35 percent of “all other Republicans.” So, in theory at least, the Tea Party is poised to have a big influence on this year’s GOP vote.
So far, however, anti-establishment Tea Party candidates haven’t won a single major statewide race in GOP primaries, including their big loss in North Carolina to a more traditionally minded, establishment-backed right-winger last week.
Various other polls, including NBC News/Marist, New York Times Upshot/Kaiser Family Foundation and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution have all shown evidence of Tea Party weakness and the strength of the Chamber of Commerce–oriented, Karl Rove–backed, Wall Street–linked GOP establishment. The AJC poll showed, in particular, that the Tea Party isn’t likely to win in Georgia, where the Democrats might have a shot at picking up a Senate seat, especially in the Republican candidate is a Tea Partier. The Washington Post, reporting on the polls, says that they “confirm an emerging trend of the 2014 primary season: the Republican establishment has the upper hand over the tea party.” And the Post adds that where the Tea Party has strength, it’s in states that don’t really matter in a presidential contest: Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.
Perhaps as a result of its frustration, the Tea Party is bitterly attacking the Republican establishment and even its own erstwhile allies, such as FreedomWorks, which has traditionally been considered one of the Washington-based focal points of the Tea Party itself. As The New York Times reports today, when FreedomWorks shifted its support from one candidate to another in Nebraska’s Senate primary—held today—a group of fifty-two Tea Party activists lambasted Freedom Works: