Since attorney Ted Cruz's victory in the Texas Republican primary for a Senate seat last week, Tea Party members across the country have been touting the strength of their conservative movement and its influence on the Republican Party. But don't expect much of a Tea Party celebration this month in Tampa, Florida, where beginning August 27 Republicans will hold their four-day national convention and formally recognize Mitt Romney as the party's presidential nominee.
Despite the continuing prominence of the loosely organized anti-tax, small-government movement that helped Republicans take over the U.S. House of Representatives two years ago, Tea Party activists and leaders say they are preparing for what amounts to a snub in Tampa.
The Tea Party continues to be a force in congressional and state elections, particularly in the South and Midwest. But Republicans' pending nomination of Romney – whose conservative credentials are questioned by many Tea Partiers – has led many in the movement to shift their focus from the presidential race. So when the nation's eyes are on Tampa this month, many Tea Party activists say their attention will be elsewhere, at dozens of state-level races where they say they can make a difference without having to hold their noses.
Some Tea Party members see the convention as an exhibition of the Republican Party at its back-scratching, favor-dealing worst. "The Tea Party is not about cool cocktail parties with (Republican Party) chairmen," said Adam Brandon, executive vice president of FreedomWorks, a Washington-based Tea Party group.
That the convention will seek to enhance Romney's credibility makes matters worse for some Tea Partiers, whose suspicions of the former Massachusetts governor revolve largely around his signing a healthcare overhaul in his state that became a model for the program that Democrat Barack Obama put into place nationally as president. "Obamacare," as it became known, requires most Americans to buy health insurance, and is a policy that most Tea Partiers view as a budget-busting violation of individual rights.
So even as Romney declared himself to be "severely conservative" in front of a Tea Party-infused crowd in Washington in February, Tea Party members spent most of the presidential primary season backing Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, and Newt Gingrich, former House of Representatives speaker, as more conservative alternatives.
While they prefer him to Obama, many Tea Partiers will not vote for Romney, said Judson Phillips, a Tea Party leader from Nashville, Tennessee, who puts that figure as high as "one-third to one-half" of Tea Party activists. He warns that such people could vote for other conservatives on their November 6 ballots but skip Romney. "He's got a real activist gap that he needs to make up."
LUKEWARM TOWARD ROMNEY
The Tea Party scored another win in a high-profile race on Tuesday when one of its candidates, Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, defeated two other Republicans for the right to face Democratic Senator Claire in November. Akin's victory, and Cruz's success in Texas, highlighted the Tea Party's ability to influence statewide races – a success it has not yet attained in a race for national office.
So in effect, Akin and Cruz have given some conservative activists a reason to channel-surf when the Republican convention is on TV this month.
Tea Party members say they will be investing most of their energy on state and local races this fall, gravitating toward Republicans such as Cruz, Akin, Indiana U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, and Nebraska U.S. Senate candidate Deb Fischer.