The Tea Party has become an Election Day force to be reckoned with, at least in places like Alaska, Nevada and Delaware. There, Tea Party candidates have shoved aside more conventional GOP contenders in primary races. That storyline, of routing Republican candidates who are seen as too moderate, hasn’t played out in Tennessee.
For a few days this February, you might have confused Tennessee with the cradle of the Tea Party movement. A group of 600 Tea Party leaders from around the country gathered for a convention at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. They learned the nuts and bolts of political organizing and applied the skills back home to find others who share their ideals of less spending, less debt and generally less government.
Now many of those Tea Party leaders have a feather in their caps in the form of primary wins.
“The Tea Party movement’s had a huge effect across the country,” says Judson Phillips, an attorney from Brentwood who organized the convention. “But looking here in Tennessee – which is already a pretty red state as it is – it’s hard to say the Tea Party movement is having a huge effect, at least in terms of elections.”
No Big Wins on the Primary Score Card
Here’s the primary score card. Lou Ann Zelenik was the Tea Party favorite in Tennessee’s 6th District. Diane Black wins. CeCe Heil had Tea Party backing in the 5th District of Nashville and even got an endorsement from Tea Party idol Sarah Palin. But David Hall wins. Then there’s the governor’s race.
“I haven’t seen so much union in the Tea Party groups as everyone supporting Ron Ramsey,” Phillips says. “And Ramsey came in third place.”
By a two-to-one margin, Bill Haslam cruised to claim the nomination.
Tea Party leaders say in the governor’s race and down the ticket, no candidate was viewed as an enemy of conservatism, which made it hard to rally the troops.
Tea Party Size Distorted
There are plenty of Tea Party foot soldiers here. But polls show the media has inflated the movement’s size.
“If you ask Tennesseans to guess what proportion of Tennessee adults belong to the Tea Party, they guess one in four, on average,” says Ken Blake, director of the MTSU Poll. “In reality, it’s more like one in ten.”
But that 10% of Tennesseans has been a loud minority. The volume cranked up when thousands gathered for Tax Day protests in 2009. Months later, many showed up at town hall meetings about the health care overhaul.
Tea Partiers shouted down Democratic Congressman Bart Gordon. Others cheered “bye-bye Bart” outside his Murfreesboro office.
“It was clear from the voter sentiment that he was no longer welcome,” says Matt Moynihan, the founder of Sumner United.
Moynihan’s group is a Tea Party faction in Hendersonville, which is in Bart Gordon’s congressional district. Moynihan gives the Tea Party credit that the 13-term Democrat will retire this year.
“Our work was done with unseating Bart Gordon,” he says.
Working for Decisive Win
Gordon’s retirement is a nuanced victory. But groups like Moynihan’s Sumner United wouldn’t mind a decisive win.
A meeting at a local pizzeria opens with a prayer.
“Help us father to stand up at this time, when all of our values are under assault,” a woman says.
It’s a regularly scheduled get-together and the topic is fundraising. Organizer Eric Stamper explains an effort to help conservatives around the state.
“We’re not going to support them just because they’ve got an ‘R’ behind their name. That’s not what we’re doing these days,” he says. “The second thing is, they must face a liberal incumbent.”
There’s got to be a clear enemy of conservatism for this fund to get involved, Stamper says.
The target list includes Congressman Lincoln Davis, a Democrat who represents southern Middle Tennessee and the Cumberland Plateau. In the state House, sites are on former Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, also a Democrat, and current Speaker Kent Williams, who is technically an independent after being forced to leave the state Republican Party.
‘It Does Take Money to Do These Things’
But for now, the Tennessee Conservatives Fund is mostly talk…and a Web site. Fundraising from within the Tea Party has seen mixed results.
“The Tea Party has yet to realize that it does take money to do these things,” says Mark Skoda, a Tea Party leader in Memphis.
Skoda announced earlier this year plans to raise $10 million for candidates around the country. His Ensuring Liberty PAC went nowhere, even though he unveiled it in the media spotlight of the national Tea Party convention.
“I think we’ve really sort of stepped back and said, ‘quit trying to be so national and let’s be local, where we can actually get the votes out, control our destiny, which is within the state of Tennessee,’” he says.
Skoda is already looking two years down the road when Senator Bob Corker stands for reelection. His inclination for negotiating with Democrats has won him the Tea Party’s disparaging title of RINO – Republican in Name Only.
Corker may be just the enemy the Tennessee Tea Party needs to try for its first big win.
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