Charlie Harper: Tea Party has growing pains

May 27, 2014 

When the Tea Party arrived on the scene for the 2010 elections it was greeted by Republicans as a breath of fresh air. Democrats, after all, held the U.S. House, Senate, and White House. The movement help galvanize the GOP around the central message of being "taxed enough already." Taking control of the House gave the GOP the standing to say the voters stand opposed to the Affordable Care Act.

The anti-establishment nature of the movement was soon shown to be a mixed bag for the GOP. The 2012 cycle showed signs of the movement reaching its terrible twos. The Tea Party is largely credited with the nomination of Richard Mourdock instead of incumbent Senator Richard Lugar in Indiana, a seat the Republicans lost. Worse, Mourdock and fellow Tea Party candidate Todd Aiken branded the movement for the cycle - and largely held the blame for Republicans missing an opportunity to take control of the Senate.

Republicans during the 2014 cycle are still figuring out the Tea Party's role in the party. While many Tea Party members keep their outsider message, many more still have become ingrained within the structure of the GOP. Tea Party candidates have been elected at all levels of government. It is getting harder and harder for the Tea Party to claim "outsider" status.

The rhetoric from Tea Party leaders, however, remains fixated on an "us versus the establishment" theme, despite the toeholds within the party and elected office. The Tea Party itself remains a largely undefined loose configuration of groups, many of whom do not have regular elections for those who lead and speak on behalf of "the Tea Party." The only real way to determine the standing of the Tea Party is at the ballot box - and that brings us to last Tuesday's elections.

Many stories have already been written noting that the Tea Party is not doing well this election cycle, noting that "establishment" candidates are generally winning challenges from Tea Party candidates. Too many have called this the beginning of the end of the Tea Party movement. That is likely not the case. Instead, it is likely a time for some introspection and a time to choose courses of action if the movement is to remain relevant.

There are those within the movement who have decided that winning elections is not important. Others have decided that standing in opposition to anything and everything is a good business model. For those who now draw mid-six figure salaries as Tea Party leaders or even more as right-leaning media types, it is a great business model. Unfortunately, business models are not easily translated into models of governance. Worse, these models tend to work better when Republicans are in the minority party, but cause inherent conflict when the GOP stands in the majority.

The U.S. House is the current national example, with Tea Party candidates now running on a "fire John Boehner" platform. Much like those who voted against Boehner for Speaker after the 2012 cycle, they do not offer a plan to elect someone that they are for. They can only articulate what they are against.

Being against something is easy. Articulate what you are for, outlining a strategy to pass it through a political process, and have the results stand up to scrutiny from voters in both a primary and a general election is much more difficult. Such is the burden of being in a majority. It is the burden of actually having to govern, which is the GOP's burden here in Georgia.

In Georgia last Tuesday, the voters decided to side with those who have the burden of governing, rather than those who oppose everything. The governor defeated two primary challengers handily. The Speaker also sailed to re-election in his House district. The House Education Committee chairman defeated two challengers in a race that became a proxy on Georgia's Common Core. Two first-term anti-establishment House members were defeated.

While some runoffs remain, the only two "GOP establishment" members of the General Assembly who were defeated had ethical or personal financial issues. One, Gwinnett Senator Don Balfour, should be a scalp that the Tea Party could claim victory over. Instead, the leader who lives in his district temporarily moved to the Speaker's district to battle him - and lose.

Do these results foreshadow the end of the Tea Party movement in Georgia? No, not likely. And it shouldn't have to. But it does send a message to both the Tea Party leaders and those who identify with the movement.

Republican voters in Georgia clearly sided with those who have the responsibility to govern, rather than those who are against everything. Governing isn't easy, and requires tough choices. It requires tradeoffs. Like it or not, it requires compromise.

Those in the minority can promise quick fixes, platitudes, and solutions punctuated with "it's just that simple." Those with the burden of governing have to eschew these sound bites in lieu of complex reality-based actions.

While November elections will determine if Georgia remains a "red state" or becomes a "purple state," the premise the Tea Party must begin working under is that with a majority comes the responsibility to govern. If the Tea Party wishes to remain relevant, it's going to have to be able to sell a message to the majority of GOP primary voters.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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