The Tea Party Purge of 2012

Republican leaders are punishing some of the party’s most conservative members. And they won’t go down without a yelp.

Rep. Justin Amash
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) has accused GOP leadership of “purging” Tea Party conservatives from committees

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Everybody knew that Tim Huelskamp would make trouble in Washington. That was sort of the point of Tim Huelskamp. In 2009, when a safe Republican seat in western Kansas opened up, State Sen. Huelskamp established himself as the mad-as-hell candidate. He told conservative bloggers of his fight to defund Planned Parenthood, ban gay marriage, and keep Kathleen Sebelius out of the Obama cabinet. In one TV ad, as the mellow-looking Huelskamp climbed into a tractor, voters were told that he “went against his party leaders, and was kicked off his committee, for bucking the establishment and fighting wasteful spending.” He won easy.

History repeats. On Tuesday, the re-elected Huelskamp walked into a luncheon at the Heritage Foundation and told conservative activists how he’d just been booted from the Budget and Agriculture Committees. It was a “purge,” and his crime was being exactly as conservative as he’d promised.

“We’ve heard from multiple sources that someone walked in with a list of votes and said, ‘if you didn’t [fulfill] a particular scorecard on the ‘right’ votes—which by the way, in most cases, were not the conservative positions—we’re gonna remove you from committee.” The activists quietly chewed Chick-fil-A sandwiches as Huelskamp scorched his party leaders. “It confirms, in my mind, Americans’ deepest suspicions about Washington. It’s petty, it’s vindictive, and if you have any conservative principles, you will be punished for it.”

If losing the 2012 election was tough for movement conservatives, the month since the loss has been even tougher. They’re losing every internal power struggle that matters. On Nov. 14, conservative Rep. Tom Price lost a secret ballot election for a leadership post. The next day, the conservative Republican Study Committee gave its chairmanship to Rep. Steve Scalise, who’d been opposed by the group’s former leaders—like Tom Price.

Over the next two weeks, Washington bubbled with rumors of Republicans agreeing to raise taxes, and violate the pledge they’d made to Grover Norquist, if it got them a “grand bargain” that cut spending on entitlements. Huelskamp responded with a YouTube video in which he warned that “a lot of my colleagues appear ready to break their word,” but when he signed that pledge, he “meant it.” On Dec. 3, Republican leaders sent an open letter to President Obama admitting that their ideal plan couldn’t pass, but some combination of entitlement cuts and “revenue” enhancement could. Conservatives like Huelskamp attacked, joined by David Koch’s Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Foundation.

This was when Huelskamp learned he’d lost the plum committee assignment. Joining him in exile were Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who’d also been bounced from Budget, and Arizona Rep. David Schweikert, who’d lost a place on Financial Services. Huelskamp and Amash had both voted against Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget when it got into the committee, on the grounds that it didn’t balance fast enough.

Amash arrived at Tuesday’s Heritage luncheon a little after Huelskamp. He called the leadership’s move an outright “purge,” and a disrespectful one. “I’ve not a single call from anyone in leadership, not a single email,” he said. “I’ve read about this in the media.”

Huelskamp placed his hand on Amash’s shoulder. “The call is coming,” he said.

Conservative activists interpret the Amash/Huelskamp/Schweikert purge as a rearguard action against the party base. There’s reason to believe them. The 2011 debt limit standoff cratered public opinion of the GOP, and when it didn’t recover, leaders started to criticize the new outside groups that had subjected Republicans to litmus tests, threatening them if they cast wayward votes. On Tuesday, Amash said he voted against the 2013 Ryan budget—after “voting with our team 95 percent of the time”—because “we did not take a strong enough stance in dealing with our debt.” That was exactly the argument made by Heritage Action, the campaign branch of the conservative think tank, which had launched in the Tea Party year of 2010. Republican leaders can’t punish Heritage, but it can punish back-benchers.

“The last 24 hours are very concerning to those of us in the conservative movement who are hoping to see Republicans stand for conservative principles,” said Tim Chapman, COO of Heritage Action.* “We still believe principled policy is good politics. The American people are looking for leadership.”

According to Chapman, and to House conservatives, the election bolstered their argument. The GOP’s majority only shrunk by eight seats, and the vast majority of conservatives survived. The highest-profile Republican loser was probably Rep. Allen West, who’s appeared in the lede of every “Tea Party R.I.P.” story. But after he lost, the moderate-hunting Club for Growth noted that West voted their way only 64 percent of the time. “Allen West is a classic example of how the main-stream media lumps together everyone who won in 2010 into a giant ‘tea-party’ blob based only on rhetoric,” said Club spokesman Barney Keller, “not their actual commitment to promoting economic freedom and limited government.” Conservatism didn’t fail. People failed—the sort of scaredy-cats who passed that watered-down budget.

“What did we get for a House majority in 2010?” asked Huelskamp. “All I can see is a smaller majority in 2012. The response of a failed institution, when you fail, is to turn and start punishing people internally.” It was a sell-out, just as in 1995, when Republicans were “days away” from winning the battle over the government shutdown, then caved.

According to Amash, the party leaders were blaming the wrong people. They, not libertarian-leaning Republicans like him, were the ones who spent “$300 million on ads that didn’t work.” They’d ruined the brand.

“The polling bears this out,” said Huelskamp. “The best electoral advantage Republicans have is that Americans don’t think we’re the party that will raise your taxes. If taxes go up, Obama doesn’t lose. The Democrats don’t lose. We lose!”

Huelskamp has been here before, of course. He told those Kansas voters that he had a way of getting kicked off of committees. Amash has been cruising toward a conflict like this for a long time. An avowed admirer of Rep. Ron Paul, whose endorsement helped Amash get to Congress, he’d established a pretty sizable network of libertarian supporters. They were waking up, telling him to be proud at what his stance had forced the leadership to do.

Before he left the think tank, I asked Amash about the leadership’s thinking. What explained those polls that showed most Americans blaming the GOP for a potential cliff-fall? “The polling is bad because the messaging is bad,” he said. “Republicans are pitting this as entitlements versus ‘tax cuts for the rich.’ ” All that said, if the Republican leadership was visibly distancing itself from libertarians and Tea Partiers, what would that mean for their leverage?

“I think it makes their leverage worse,” said Amash. “I was one of the people on the Budget Committee trusted by Democrats, because I was a fair broker. I’ve been willing to stand up for Democrats when they’ve called for reductions in military spending. If anything, what they’ve created is a more uniform Republican party. There’s only one message going out, and it’s the message of the speaker and the leadership.”

Correction, Dec. 10, 2012: This piece incorrectly described Tim Chapman as CEO if Heritage Action. (Return.)