George Stephenson was apprehensive as he walked into a December 2008 meeting of fellow Smith County Republican precinct chairmen. He was there to share an idea he and then-Republican Party Chairman Ashton Oravetz had discussed over lunch — creating a grassroots group to operate outside the Republican Party structure.
“I didn’t know how it would be received,” he said. “There wasn’t any standing ovation. Some people smiled and nodded. Some people talked to me after to see what I had in mind. Some people got involved. Some people never got involved.”
But Stephenson’s lunchtime meetings quickly grew from six people to a few dozen then several dozen. The tenor of the meetings was one of fear for the future, disgust with establishment Democrats and Republicans and what “we the people” could do to incrementally change the nation’s fiscal direction.
Stephenson, 68, said the meetings “ignited” a feeling of personal responsibility as a citizen, requiring he take action. His early idea was to create a watchdog group to monitor local government.
The April 2009 “tax day” rallies created a similar ignition point for other residents. More than 1,500 people showed up at T.B. Butler Fountain Plaza to protest an “out of touch” government. Hundreds of tax day rallies were held around the country.
Grassroots America — We the People, became the culmination of Stephenson’s idea, a Tea Party-type political action committee with dozens of active local “watchdog” volunteers, hundreds of members and a web of connection with similar groups around the state and nation. The group’s influence on local policy and elections over the last four and half years has been clear and yet sometimes inconsistent.
Political observers say the level of Tea Party influence in Texas politics today is debatable but they agree the movement has clearly impacted the political conversation and how incumbents and candidates court the electorate, especially in the Republican Primary. The Republican establishment first embraced the movement as a grassroots reaction to President Barack Obama’s election and subsequent policy agenda.
But today the Tea Party has shown a desire to purify the Republican Party leaving moderate legislators labeled RINOs (Republican In Name Only) and scrambling to appeal to activist conservatives who have shown they can make or break statewide and local campaigns.
The May 27 runoff for lieutenant governor between David Dewhurst and Dan Patrick could reinforce the conservative trend of party purification. Patrick tapped into the movement’s fervor during his tenure in the Senate, while Tea Party groups have been critical of Dewhurst for not pressing more conservative policy items with a Republican majority under his leadership.
But the runoff will likely be determined by a small percentage of Texans, which means motivated, activist voters will weigh heavy on the final tally.
Activist Julie Turner, president of the Texas Patriots political action committee, a Tea Party-type group in Montgomery County, said rallies during the early days were useful to get the word out and let people know they were not alone. Today, Ms. Turner, a 44-year-old homemaker and nonpracticing clinical psychologist, said the Tea Party is about elections and electing people who share its principles.
She said the Tea Party has shown strength in numbers and its effect on statewide results showed in the race for U.S. Senate between Dewhurst, a long-time statewide Republican fixture, and Ted Cruz, a former solicitor general in the Texas Attorney General’s office. Cruz expressed Tea Party discontent with establishment Republicans and became the darling of the movement.
Tea Party turnouts in Collin, Denton, Tarrant and Montgomery counties were 61 percent to 67 percent for Cruz and tipped the scales in the 2012 primary runoff.
But political analysts consider Cruz an anomaly that capitalized on a later-than-usual primary. The subsequent crowded primary field prevented Dewhurst from capturing 50 percent-plus one vote in the primary and left the election up to 8.5 percent of registered Texas voters who visited polls for the two-man runoff. Collin, Denton, Tarrant and Montgomery county turnouts ranged from 8 percent to 14.5 percent.
The Tea Party has also engaged and encouraged down-ticket, local candidates to run for county judge, justice of the peace, county commissioners and city council seats, Mrs. Turner said. She calls the local grassroots candidates who could later move up the political ladder as the Tea Party’s “farm team,” similar to AA and AAA baseball development teams.
“Candidates should have our values and we want elected officials who don’t negotiate on values, but you have to be willing to negotiate on policy to be an effective legislator. We understand that,” she said. “Finding someone who can articulate those values, the founding principles of this country and weave them into a message and policy is the trouble.”
Cruz captured the attention of Texans and increasingly Americans because he has that ability, she said.
Ms. Turner believes the underlying desire of people who identify with groups like hers lies within the DNA of the vast majority of Americans. They want to thrive. They want success. They want to move up the economic ladder. But it takes freedom, hard work and a fair playing field to succeed, she said.
Stephenson said the role of the Tea Party is to educate and energize residents about local, statewide and national candidates and legislative decisions that affect residents.
The government’s role in that picture of America is limited to core services, she said, such as infrastructure, education and law enforcement.
“Government should do those core things and do them well,” she said. “And the other aspects should be taken care of by the private sector and the faith-based community. Everyone has to do their part.”
Polling by the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics Project suggests a complex relationship between Texas voters and the Tea Party.
Five polls since 2011, suggest voters increasingly believed the Tea Party had “too little” influence.
In October 2011, 24 percent of respondents 45 and older said the Tea Party had too little influence compared to 34 percent in February 2013. During the same time period self-identified Republicans who believed the same rose to 46 percent from 34 percent.
Polling also shows Texans are split into thirds when it comes to identifiable political leanings — one third Democrat, one third Republican and one third Independents, said Texas Politics Project Director Jim Henson.
But there are caveats to Independents that lean more ideologically toward either party, Henson added. It’s difficult to pinpoint Tea Party distinction because poll participants view it as more socially acceptable to call themselves “independent,” he said.
“In the United States there’s a much more ambivalent view of history and parties. A lot of people feel it’s virtuous to identify yourself as independent even if your underlying attitude and even more importantly your voting behavior looks like party identification.”
One thing clear to Henson is the Tea Party functions as the right wing of the Republican Party.
It’s tempting among analysts, academics and the media to categorize the movement as a free-floating phenomenon akin to interest groups, Henson said.
But the broad phenomenon the movement represents is the turn in the rhetoric and politics of the conservative grassroots and how Republican Party leaders and other interests respond.
Henson compared Tea Party’s influence in GOP primary elections to organized labor groups’ influence on Democratic primaries. But influence has also manifested itself in the Legislature as organized groups, such as the Tea Party Caucus, that are guided by identifiable agendas.
“The Tea Party appears to be the crystallization of a movement that has already been going on,” he said. “The Republican Party at the grassroots was getting much more conservative and this is a manifestation of that. The Tea Party label has become a vehicle for that movement to have an institutional life inside the Republican Party.”
The organization of groups outside the GOP, such as Grassroots America and Texas Patriots, manifests influence through activism, he said, and effects how the Republican Party operates and the GOP “brand” is perceived.
THE PARTY SAYS
Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri did not answer repeated interview requests by the Tyler Morning Telegraph to discuss the Tea Party’s place in the statewide and national political landscape and whether its existence plays a critical or detrimental role for the Republican Party.
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said he believes the GOP’s continued move to the right to pacify Tea Party groups will be a long-term detriment to the state. Hinojosa said GOP leaders fain excitement about the Tea Party’s role publicly but doubts internally they believe in the movement’s extreme positions.
“The Tea Party has taken complete control of the Republican Party because they make up a majority of primary voters and a Republican politician who wants to survive a primary election must bow down to and walk lock-step with the policies they espouse,” he said. “I don’t think they have much of a choice but to embrace it to survive.”
Hinojosa believes the Tea Party represents the most extremist policies the nation has known in generations.
“They are so far to the right, so anti-immigrant, anti-government, anti-compromise, anti-everything except anything that looks like them, talks like them and believes like them,” he said.
Smith County Republican Party Chairman Tim McCormick agreed the Tea Party functions almost exclusively within the GOP and is a powerful force at the polls. But he said Hinojosa is painting conservatives as a politically convenient foil.
“It’s because I think most Texans, certainly most East Texans, from every demographic, relate to and feel the Tea Party represents their values,” he said. “You have kooks in every extreme, right and left, but if people look at the core message of the Tea Party it isn’t as offensive as it’s painted to be.”
McCormick, who also teaches American history and does not consider himself a Tea Party member, said much of the Tea Party’s roots date back to the Religious Right movement of the early 1980s, when social conservatives mobilized independently of the GOP because they felt politicians took them for granted.
Hinojosa said Tea Party groups portray themselves as independent but that they are political tools for right-wing extremist donors.
“It’s a fallacy that Tea Party groups are not influenced by big money donors like the Koch brothers,” he said. “The reality is they are a front for these right wing, extremist, big money donors who want to manipulate government to meet their interests.”
Hinojosa is sticking to the Tea Party “puppets” script Democrats continue to drum, McCormick said. He said there is no indication the Tea Party is being funded by mega-donors and that the Koch’s have directly funded GOP candidates or anti-Democrat campaigns.
McCormick said he believes both parties are suffering from an inside-the-Beltway identification crisis because both Democrats and Republicans in Washington D.C. are out of touch with folks at home.
The Tea Party has shown supporters of both parties they can operate outside establishment, lobby dominated politics and influence the political landscape through activism rather than money, he said. Therein lies the fear, he said.
“Both parties are experiencing frays from internal factions who feel their needs aren’t being represented. Democrats have just done a better job of maintaining their message,” he said. “The Tea Party just represents a convenient whipping boy because it upsets the balance of power.”