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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

By Ali Watkins, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — As Democrats fight desperately to keep a Senate majority in the upcoming elections, one conservative voice has been noticeably muted in the fight for seats: a cohesive far-right tea party.

It’s been four years since the group made its sensational entrance onto the national stage, prompting a swell of support that swept names like Florida’s Marco Rubio, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, and Texas’ Ted Cruz into Washington. Touting a general distaste for government and a focused disgust for Democrats, the movement helped oust a host of more traditional incumbents.

But according to recent Gallup polls, the number of Republicans who consider themselves supporters of the tea party has steadily dropped since the movement’s peak in 2010, down from 61 percent to 41 percent. With its heyday behind it, the tea party of 2014 looks less like a movement and more like a fractured, disconnected offensive, doomed by hyperlocal ties that make national impact a challenge.

“There’s no single tea party organization, most of which don’t have a whole lot of money,” said Robert Boatright, a political science professor and an expert in congressional primaries at Clark University in Massachusetts. “If candidates wish to refer to themselves as a tea party candidate, there’s not really anybody to say no.”

That lack of cohesive voice has already led to losses in the 2014 midterm primaries, in which tea party challengers failed miserably to upset incumbents with national GOP backing.

South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, easily avoided a runoff and walked away with the state’s Republican nomination this year, despite being considered one of this cycle’s more vulnerable incumbents. When all was said and done, though, he had less than 60 percent of the votes.

“That’s no overwhelming landslide. It shows that there’s still some resentment out there,” said David Woodard, a political science professor at South Carolina’s Clemson University.

But that resentment was spread among six different tea party challengers, a fracture that Woodard says speaks to the group’s now exploited weaknesses.

“They each had a geographic support, and what happened is, there was nobody to sort of pull them all together,” he said.

Graham’s South Carolina is a useful example when considering the tea party’s life span, a deep red, conservative microcosm that has hosted various tea party dramas since the group found a foothold in 2010. For years, Graham has had to fend off attacks from the far right, which says he isn’t conservative enough. Some of his delegation colleagues, meanwhile, have attempted a delicate balance: beckoning tea party support with one hand while holding them at arm’s length with the other.

The House elections of 2010 saw several amateur Republicans in South Carolina knock longtime institutional politicians out of office. Reps. Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Duncan, and Tim Scott, now a senator, all rode the swell into office.

It’s difficult to nail down exactly where the four stand now on the tea party. Mulvaney, Duncan and Scott were reportedly all associated with Congress’ Tea Party Caucus at some point, although it appears the caucus, headed by Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann, is not as organized as it was during its inaugural run in 2010. Bachmann’s spokesman, Dan Kotman, said the group is still holding meetings but does not maintain an official membership list.

This reluctance to publicly associate with the movement reflects a trend found in the tea party’s tidal wave aftermath: Many lawmakers didn’t so much help build the wave as hitch its ride to Washington.

AFP Photo/Andrew Burton

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