Why the Tea Party Failed

And why its next battle will be with the GOP.

Mitt Romney speaks to Tea Party supporters.
Mitt Romney speaks to Tea Party supporters in Michigan in February.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

The day after the election, FreedomWorks and its key state-to-state organizers dialed into a one-of-a-kind conference call. For the first time ever, they would be discussing a crushing defeat. Their “Take the Senate” campaign had ended with Democrats in greater control of the upper house. Their turnout game, powered by a new web-based canvassing app, was swatted aside by labor and the Democrats. Richard Mourdock, the Indiana politician who’d been with Tea Partiers since the 2009 Taxpayer March on Washington, had lost one of the party’s safest seats.

And now John Boehner was selling them out. The speaker of the House had just jimmied open the door to “new revenue,” which conservatives hear—correctly, typically—as “new taxes.”

“People were upset,” remembers Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks’ director of state campaigns. “Does Boehner cave in to what Obama and Reid want to do, or does he at least stay relatively strong on these issues? He’s probably going to a lot of these Republican, Tea Party folks, and say: OK, guys, here’s what we need to do to stay in power. That’s the fear.”

How does the Tea Party stop it? Good question. What else does the Tea Party want to halt? Better, more complicated question. The movement, which starts its second four-year term in February, was built on opposition to the president’s stimulus and health care law. There’s no real chance of a new stimulus bill, and the health care law is safe until at least 2017. In the foxhole, when the only goal was defeating Obama, there were no real disagreements among Tea Partiers and the rest of the conservative base. That’s over, too.

Over the last few days, as they’ve processed data from the election, the right’s Obama-era grass-roots groups are divided over what went wrong and what to do next. FreedomWorks’ get-out-the-vote app was called Political Gravity. It had been developed by American Majority, a grass-roots group run by Ned Ryun, which had its own offices in swing states and its own literature telling voters to save their children from the rampaging national debt. On Thursday, Ryun was downright dismissive of how the software had been used. Teams of Tea Partiers went to homes and tried to talk to residents about their terrific Senate candidates. If no one was home, they put information at the door.

“When you knock at a door, you’ve got to talk to people,” asked Ryun. “You dropped off 50,000 door-hangers? Great. All you did was waste trees.”

After an election where nothing seemed to work, you can hear the case made against almost everything. Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom coalition made it to the New York Times, because Reed talked a good game about mobilizing the sort of white evangelical voters who’d been pushed back into politics by the Tea Party. But the mobilization didn’t outmatch the Democrats. “Ralph Reed says he made 12 million robocalls?” asked Ryan. “Great. Who gives a rip?”

Americans for Prosperity, David Koch’s group, spent tens of millions of dollars on a flashy ground game. I observed it in action, twice. Like the Romney campaign, it flopped in every swing state. “We’re looking closely at our own program, and we’re analyzing how the left ran their operation, as we often have in the past,” said Americans for Prosperity spokesman Levi Russell. “I can tell you that one major goal of the field program was to identify and recruit new activists/volunteers. That was very successful. Our membership grew by around 400,000 members, largely due to the personal contact of our people on the ground.”

And that’s where the uncertainty comes in. If there are new Tea Party ground troops, how do they differ from Ralph Reed’s ground troops? How do they differ from generic Republicans? In 2010, the Tea Party became an interest group inside the GOP. The party blamed them for spoiling some primaries by nominating loser candidates, but even then, they were working inside the party.

FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity are going to keep working for a Congress with fewer Democrats and more Republicans. But they disagree with the other elements of the GOP’s base about what kinds of Republicans they want. All of the Tea Partiers I talked to this week led with one piece of post-election spin: That Republicans could not win without cracking into the Latino vote.

“We’ve been working with a group of Spanish-speaking Tea Party people in Florida,” said Jenny Beth Martin, chairwoman of the coalition group Tea Party Patriots. “In Wisconsin, people were putting material out in Spanish, reaching the Spanish-speaking community. Our idea of freedom resonates across party lines and across the party divide.”

That’s one take on the problem. The other take: Republicans will need to resist some elements in their base and pass immigration legislation that wins over Hispanics.

“If the Republicans were smart, in January, maybe they’d come out with that bill and win some of that support in exchange for some of the Tancredo-style support,” said FreedomWorks’s Steinhauser. “The left saw the future and built a demographic coalition among people who don’t maybe necessarily agree. You lose some of your hard-core supporters and you pick up new ones.”

For the first time, there’s an issue that could pit the GOP’s best-organized and best-funded grass-roots against other parts of the party base. Talk radio helped kill immigration legislation in 2007. Some of the Tea Party’s leaders wanted that legislation to survive. Dick Armey, the former GOP majority leader who now chairs FreedomWorks, was warning Republicans to “get off this goofiness,” stop talking about a border fence, and pass the bill.

David and Charles Koch, and other businessmen who’ve discovered politics in the Tea Party area, are far more simpatico to immigration reform than, say Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin. In 2007, Iowa Rep. Steve King fought reform so hard that he brought a small model of a border fence to the floor of the House, to show how ready-made it could be. In 2009, King was linking arms with Dick Armey. King will be in D.C. come January. So will FreedomWorks. And for the first time, they completely disagree about how they can win the country.