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.
Obviously, the numbers will vary according to which legislative district is in play. Moreover, it’s uncertain just how many Tea Partiers there are in Michigan, given that the organization is grass roots-based, comprised of more than two dozen fiercely independent local groups with no centralized leadership structure or membership list. Some critics call the Tea Party “a mile wide but one or two people deep. They note the intense individual social media presence of one Joan Fabiano, founder of the Lansing-area Grassroots in Michigan.
Others look at Americans For Prosperity, a national group funded by industrialists Charles and David Koch, which claims a Michigan e-mail list of 87,000, many of them Tea Partiers, according to Scott Hagerstrom, executive director of the state’s AFP chapter. Mark Grebner, the founder of Practical Political Consulting, widely regarded as an expert on Michigan voter behavior, thinks it all depends on how you define Tea Party members.
“If by ‘members’ you mean people who go to meetings, actively carry literature, tweet and actively engage in party activity, I’d guess there are no more than 500 in the state,” Grebner says. But he continues, “If by ‘members’ you mean people who are sympathetic to Tea Party ideology, there may be as many as 300,000 statewide.”
One indication: The dueling rallies at the state capital last year when the Right to Work bill was being considered by the legislature. Tea Partiers, led by Scott Hagerstrom, demonstrated in favor of the bill; their tent, set up in support, was torn down by opponents who numbered in the thousands.
Although numbers are hard to come by, most observers estimated around 300 Tea Partiers made it to the rally to support Right To Work. Grebner thinks the strong feelings stirred up by RTW would have pulled out almost every strong Tea Party member to demonstrate in Lansing. However, just a few passionate and hyper-energetic Tea Party members can have disproportionate influence on an election, particularly in a low-turnout primary, where the margin between victory and defeat can be only a few hundred votes.
Money is the mother’s milk of politics, but tracking where the Tea Party gets its financial support and how it spends its money is nearly impossible. Rich Robinson, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Network, told Bridge, “There’s an awful lot of money for which there is no accounting in state campaigns. Where it’s coming from is a mystery.” Robinson believes Americans For Prosperity is the Tea Party’s main financial backer.
He reports that AFP spent more than $2.7 million on TV advertising in Michigan during the 2012 campaign, while the Americans for Prosperity Michigan Ballot Committee raised more than $1.5 million in an unsuccessful effort to pass Proposal 5, which would have required a legislative supermajority or a vote of the people to raise any state tax.
Grassroots in Michigan founder Fabiano is quoted in Bridge as saying that when she needed to buy bumper stickers and campaign signs opposing Obamacare, “someone else” — she wouldn’t say who — paid the printer’s bill. Americans for Prosperity has more than 3,000 donors in Michigan, according to Hagerstrom, who also says AFP doesn’t give money to the Tea Party, other than paying for a table or two at their meetings.
What is clear, however, is that a Tea Party endorsement can pull big out-of-state contributions from national right-wing groups. Ex-Congressman John (Joe) Schwarz, R-Battle Creek, who was defeated in his re-nomination bid in 2006 by now incumbent Rep. Tim Walberg, attributes his defeat largely to the Washington-based Club for Growth, which “put in between $1 and $2 million against me.” The term Tea Party wasn’t in use then, but the phenomenon was similar.
Other groups such as Crossroads America and Americans for Prosperity form a national network of conservative funders whose interest in any given campaign can be triggered by the Tea Party, although they seldom get involved in state legislative races.
Chris Faulkner, a conservative political consultant from Washington, told Bridge, “Grassroots does not mean broke. I’m not saying you have to have a million dollars, but if there’s enough passion, people with your ideology are going to get behind you.”
Like pornography in the eyes of a judge, political momentum is hard to define, but you know it once you see it. Media coverage often is a proxy for momentum. Many Lansing-based news stories hold the main political dynamic in the capital is fear by incumbent Republican lawmakers of being “primaried” from the right” by Tea Party-backed candidates.
One example was the recent and very contentious vote on Medicaid expansion in Michigan that drew fierce Tea Party condemnation for those GOP state senators who voted “yes,” coupled with explicit threats to run opponents in primary elections. A comment on the Bridge Magazine articles said: “Not only will you see the primary of the RINOS. We can make it very expensive to lose principles and go against the party platform during election time.”
Facing primary opposition is the worst fear in a legislator’s mind, former senate majority leader Sikkema told Bridge. “Having someone challenge you from within your own party is a major sign of weakness - as if you’re not smart or strong enough a politician to avoid a primary.”
The moment sitting lawmakers seem vulnerable to primary challenges, they begin to lose leverage and bargaining power in their caucuses. Headlines count, and many folks in Michigan who see the Tea Party in newspaper headlines figure they’re the ones setting the agenda and driving the “big mo.”
Newspapers and TV stations often give short mention to the Tea Party in political stories without going into depth about what the organization really is and the extent of its reach. Public perception of Tea Party power is also reinforced by its considerable skills in using social media to amplify its presence and impact. Bridge reporter Shellenbarger found that some Tea Party meetings only drew a few, while some took place only in the blogosphere.
Another contributor to Tea Party momentum is the relatively meager response from “mainstream” Republicans. Many sitting legislators, including Gov. Rick Snyder’s office, declined to comment on the Tea Party for Bridge. And some Lansing insiders have remarked that mainline Republicans seem to find the grunt work of daily politics distasteful.
Chamber of Commerce types don’t seem to be lining up like they once did to run for precinct delegate spots, local school board seats and other nitty-gritty political jobs in the trenches. Because precinct delegates become delegates to the Republican state convention, Tea Party emphasis on delegate recruitment could swing control of the GOP their way.
Todd Courser, a Tea Party leader from Lapeer who nearly unseated Republican state Bobby Schostak at the party’s state convention, sent out an e-mail blast that started, “I believe our country and our party is at a precipice.” Courser went on: “Our GOP leadership sells conservatism to get elected only to abandon it once in office. These government-expansion Republicans need to be held accountable to the people that they serve. We need you to become a precinct delegate so we can shape the party agenda. We need you to run for county offices, state representative and state senate.”
Courser’s comments are nothing less than a recruitment call to arms in the trench battle for the soul of the Republican Party. So far, response from regular Republicans has been muted, if only for fear that antagonizing a portion of the party base risks splitting the GOP majority that swept to power in the 2010 election. Saul Anuzis, a former Republican state chairman dumped as GOP national committeeman in favor of Tea Party favorite, Dave Agema, told Bridge: “They’re active, they’re loud, and they’re involved. The issue is whether (the Tea Party) becomes an intolerant and strident organization that’s incapable of working in the system.”
Others accuse the Tea Party of failure to understand the difference between partisan political display and the art of actually governing. Many tea partiers respond that “the system” is the problem, adding that it needs to be overturned from top to bottom. In the face of Tea Party revolt, mainstream Republicans may well have to develop their own ground game. But “centrist Republican” doesn’t sound particularly exciting or compelling to an electorate becoming accustomed to harsher political rhetoric.
n Making Friends: Most politicians want to please, and a few twist themselves into knots trying to be all things to all people. Not Tea Partiers, who are willing - often eager - to lay down the law in strict terms. Sikkema told me: “The Republican Party has always - at least during my lifetime - had tensions between the more conservative wing and others less so in the party, and this tension has frequently over the years played itself out in primaries for many offices, from local to state to national.”
But he added, “what ‘feels’ different to me just now is that the Tea Party types don’t believe other Republicans have the right to call themselves Republicans or to run as Republicans.”
They think anyone who doesn’t agree with them across the board on every issue should be purged from the party. That didn’t occur so much in the past: More conservative Republicans seemed to accept that other Republicans still had the right to be in the party.
Ronald Reagan supporters, for example, didn’t want to expel Nelson Rockefeller from the GOP. Willingness to exclude others and, indeed, unnecessarily make enemies of them is usually regarded as bad tactics for a politician. But many Tea Partiers don’t seem to care, preferring strict ideological purity over acceptance of differences.
Another point was raised to me by Lon Johnson, the chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “Republicans in general have moved to the right, in response to Tea Party pressure. In so doing they’re risking the majority part of the electorate: the center, whether it’s Democratic, Republican or independent. More to the point, their ability to speak to the center has atrophied, whether they’ve lost the interest or simply have lost the ability.”
The question is whether the purist ideological stance of the Tea Party is pushing the Republican party so far to the right it will have trouble appealing to the moderate majority of state voters.
n Gerrymandering: It’s no secret that most Michigan legislative districts are gerrymandered to assure regular victory of either Republican or Democratic candidates. The 2010 redistricting was controlled by a Republican-dominated legislature; not surprisingly, it resulted in a large number of gerrymandered districts favoring the GOP - and a smaller number that are solidly Democratic
What this means is that key political decisions will almost always be made in low-turnout primary elections. In Republican-dominated districts, primaries bring out strong Republican voters, a group in which Tea Partisans gain disproportionate influence. Former Congressman Joe Schwarz told me, “The Tea Party is effective because it’s feeding off gerrymandered districts, where they have a big influence because of small turnout. In such districts, winning the primary assures election. But that often means a very small minority of people in a district - 5 or 6 percent - can dominate the majority of more moderate voters.”
Wes Nakagiri, the founder of a Livingston County Tea Party group called RetakeOurGov, has announced he’ll run against Lt. Gov. Brian Calley at the Republican state convention next year.
He told Bridge, “Gerrymandering makes it easier, in my view, for us to run in a primary.”
n Turnout: It’s no secret that voter turnout varies widely from year to year. Higher in presidential years; lower in “off” years. Higher in general elections than primaries. Pollster and analyst Mark Grebner says voter turnout in presidential years in Michigan is around 5 million, whereas off years see a one-third falloff to 3.4 million or so. Why low turnout in primaries?
Grebner explains that Democrats living in a gerrymandered Republican district have no particular reason to turn out in primary elections, any more than Republicans do in Democratic districts. Grebner also estimates something like a pool of 1.8 million Michiganders turn out in primaries because they have enough of a view about particular candidates to go to the bother of voting.
Looking at the 110 state House districts in Michigan, Grebner estimates a “standard” GOP-majority district has something like 15-17,000 “plausible” Republican primary voters.
If Grebner is right in estimating there are something like 300,000 Tea Party sympathizers in Michigan, that amounts to an average of nearly 3,000 votes per district for whom the Tea Party has an influence. In primary elections where margins can range from several thousand to a few hundred, 3,000 Tea Party-influenced voters can easily be the difference between winning and losing.
n Social Media: It’s hard to track exactly the influence of new social media - Facebook, Twitter and others. But clearly it’s large. Before the social media revolution, most people got their information by reading newspapers, viewing TV or listing to the radio - all mainstream media largely uninterested in little oddball political groups. But with the rise of social media’s capacity to reach out to specific individuals with particular social or ideological characteristics, it’s become much easier to organize even a small pool of adherents into a critical mass.
Political observers have pointed to the Tea Party’s mastery of social media to propagate its general political message through blogs, announce meetings and generally rally the troops in a way not possible in the old days.
The Center for Michigan’s offices get lots of social media from Tea Party people, but relatively little from centrist Republicans.
n Summing Up: There is no doubt that the Tea Party has generated the most political excitement in Michigan in recent years. Whether it captures the soul of the GOP depends on whether it turns out its bite is tougher than its bark. In his recent e-mail blast, Tea Party leader Todd Courser says, “I ran for chairman of the Michigan Republican Party because we need to bring the party back to its core values. I will continue to fight for fiscal responsibility, limited government, conservatism and liberty. There are many ways to continue that fight and one of those ways is to hold our elected Republicans accountable. It is time that we, the conservative constitutional base of the party, define what our party is going to be.”
Establishment Republicans, such as House Speaker Jase Bolger, told Bridge Magazine that, “There are some in the Tea Party who believe we should do nothing. For me, I had to come to the realization (on Medicare expansion) that to do nothing is not an answer. I understand their opposition to Medicare expansion. I do not support Obamacare, yet, as a Legislature, we have to play with the cards we get dealt.”
In effect, Bolger is saying there is a big difference between fierce political rhetoric, no matter how challenging, and actually facing the complex reality of governing.
The great historian Jacob Burckhardt coined in 1867 the phrase, “the terrible simplifiers” as a way to characterize the true believers who put ideological purity over all else. Such people have been disproportionately powerful in political life for centuries. Whether true-believing Tea Partiers have enough power to grab the soul of the Michigan Republican Party, however, remains to be seen.
Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By e-mail at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.