It’s been a rough three weeks for the populist conservative movement called the tea party.
Its furious effort to postpone or repeal the Affordable Care Act failed. A government shutdown designed to curtail government spending ended with few visible results. Two weeks of speeches by congressional tea party leaders left the movement with its lowest approval ratings ever.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Yet tea party members in and around Kansas City insisted Thursday they are alive and well, and getting ready for the next battle, no matter what anyone else may think.
“The mainstream media and the beltway pundits can blame the tea party all day long for the shutdown,” said Alex Poulter, a Kansan who helped organize local tea party rallies and now runs a conservative website. “But the tea party is winning the hearts and minds of America.”
Not everyone appears to share that view.
In an extensive poll published Wednesday, the Pew Research Center said 49 percent of those questioned in mid-October had an unfavorable view of the tea party, its highest negative rating ever. Only 30 percent of those surveyed see the tea party favorably, Pew said.
Even among Republicans, the tea party’s reputation has slumped. Just 53 percent of Republican respondents to the poll gave the tea party a favorable rating, compared with 64 percent two years ago.
Some blamed the drop on the controversial legislative efforts of Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican considered a leader of the congressional tea party faction. Cruz spearheaded several attempts to link government spending bills with major changes to what is commonly called Obamacare.
Cruz — working with tea party allies like U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas — was widely perceived as a main cause of the government shutdown that ended Thursday.
Jim Staab, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, said the tea party effort backfired.
“The tea party has been damaged,” he said. “The tea party strategy is perhaps the worst example of sour grapes in American history.”
Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Thursday the tea party had peaked.
“The Republican Party has learned a lesson here,” he said on MSNBC. “I think you’re going to see more of a mainstream Republican party.”
While that may be true in coastal, urban states, it may be less accurate in other areas, some Republicans said.
Indeed, tea party challenges to incumbent Republican senators are expected to grow in Kentucky, Wyoming, South Carolina — and Kansas, despite the perceived setback this week in Washington.
Milton Wolf, a tea party favorite, is challenging Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts in the state’s GOP primary next year.
“Congress is less popular now than cockroaches and colonoscopies, and for a darn good reason: They’ve let America down,” he said. “The tea party did not raise the spending, did not raise the debt. Let’s judge people by the results.”
Roberts, well aware of the challenge from the tea party right, was one of just 18 senators who voted against the debt-and-spending measure Wednesday.
“This deal fails on spending. This deal fails on Obamacare. Future negotiations based on this deal will likely fail as well,” he said in a statement.
Other tea party-aligned groups — the Club for Growth, for example, or the Heritage Foundation — are expected to amplify their criticisms of mainstream Republicans in the wake of the budget deal.
“The ruling elites in Washington, D.C., have completely abandoned the American people,” said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots.
Some conservatives said American ire at tea party figures will eventually subside. Voters, they believe, will eventually blame all sides for the stalemate.
“One thing you learn, or should have learned in politics, is to not believe your own press releases,” said Carl Bearden of United for Missouri, a grass-roots conservative group. “That’s certainly true of those who are saying the tea party is damaged.”
Conservative blogger Bob Weeks in Wichita said the congressional tea party revolt drew attention to excessive spending and borrowing, even if those trends weren’t ended.
“Without tea party leaders in Congress, it’s likely that the debt ceiling would have been raised with little discussion or fanfare,” he said. “Someone has to do this job.”
Some Republicans were critical of the way tea party officials did that job, like the weekend “assault” on the World War II memorial in Washington. A tea party-like truckers’ protest in Washington fell apart after a mere handful of big rigs showed up.
But liberals faced criticism, too. A sign at a pro-Democratic rally that said “Thanks Tea-Tards” was roundly condemned this week.
Some Republicans said the problems of the tea party might actually help the GOP over the long term.
“Right now, tea party extremism contaminates the whole Republican brand,” GOP analyst David Frum wrote this week. “Maybe the right answer to the threat, ‘Shut down the government or we quit’ is: ‘So sad you feel that way. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’”
Local tea partiers might take Frum up on his offer and leave the GOP.
“The entire debate over the last 16 days was an attempt to ‘destroy’ the tea party,” said an email from Janet and Mike Stark of Platte City. “The tea party is not a political party; it is a spirit. ... You can’t kill a spirit.”