The lead headline said it all: “Michigan’s Tea Party battles for GOP’s soul.” In a recent series in The Center for Michigan’s Bridge magazine, reporter Pat Shellenbarger detailed the remarkable rise of the Tea Party from a little bunch of noisy right-wingers to a group that claims it is poised to take over the Michigan Republican Party.
By threatening sitting GOP lawmakers with opposition in primary elections, the Tea Party has in recent years become a central dynamic in Lansing political maneuvering. Medicaid expansion, road funding, Common Core in schools, even opposition to Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s re-nomination in 2014 — all key items on Gov. Rick Snyder’s agenda — are stalled by Tea Party threats to “primary” those deemed insufficiently conservative. They call these people, “Republicans In Name Only” or “RINOs.”
“There are not a lot of Tea Party true believers in the legislature,” says former GOP Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema in the Bridge article, “But the majority of the Republican caucuses in both the House and Senate are paralyzed by Tea Party threats of primary challenger next year.”
What remains to be seen is whether the Tea Party’s bark is worse than its bite. I’ve talked to a number of experienced political strategists and tried to summarize their observations by way of reviewing what a candidate needs in a war chest to win:
Whether volunteers for Right to Life or United Auto Workers members knocking on doors, any candidate needs energetic partisans to spread the message and get supporters out to vote on election day. That’s why so much of political theatre these days has to do with symbolic acts designed to “activate the base,” the dyed-in-the-wool true believers of either party considered essential to political success. What’s not clear is just how many foot soldiers the Tea Party can put into any particular campaign.