WESTFIELD, Ind. — Greg Fettig, a landscape architect and Republican activist, knows the naysayers are watching. Amid the cornfields of the Hoosier State, he and other stridently fiscal conservatives want to vanquish any doubt: The Tea Party movement will continue its seismic remaking of the political landscape.
But the movement’s appeal is being severely tested from New England to California as Democrats use the brand to portray these Republicans as unbending purists responsible for Washington’s uberpartisan gridlock.
Freshman Republican representatives such as Allen West in Florida, Frank Guinta in New Hampshire, and Nan Hayworth of New York rode a Tea Party wave of enthusiasm and money to seats in 2010 but now find themselves foundering in their reelection bids.
Conservative firebrands such as Representative Steve King of Iowa, a five-term veteran, are in danger of being sacked. Even Representative Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party doyenne from Minnesota and one-time presidential candidate, is facing a spirited challenge.
“The image of the Tea Party has changed. It’s no longer seen as a grass-roots effort, but a leadership coalition, where the leadership style is now viewed mostly as negative, as intransigent,” said Michael Dimock, the associate director for research at the Pew Research Center.
Nowhere is the struggle to maintain the energy of the movement more evident than in Indiana.
A new ad being run by Democrats puts it bluntly: “Do we really want a Tea Party zealot as our United States senator?”
Five months ago, the state was one of the Tea Party’s greatest trophies. Activists helped state Treasurer Richard Mourdock easily take down one of Washington’s biggest names, Richard Lugar, in the GOP primary. In Lugar, the activists saw an establishment figure too removed from his state, too willing to compromise on fiscal principles, and too moderate.
Yet Indiana has a long tradition of voting for moderate senators from either party in the general election. And in ousting Lugar, the activists turned a safe Republican seat into a tossup, complicating GOP efforts to win a net of four seats and retake the Senate.
“If we lose this Senate race, it will be a big blow to the Tea Party,” Fettig, a cofounder of Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, said as he led a recent conference call with leaders of the movement, from Indiana to Texas. “You’re going to have to dig deep for whatever you can muster to motivate your volunteers. If we don’t win this fall . . . our life as we know it might not be here.”
Representative Joe Donnelly, a Democrat hoping to tap into the unease moderate voters have with the Tea Party, pillories Mourdock as an extremist who would destroy Medicare, Social Security, and take an ax to the budget without regard to casualties.
Since his victory over Lugar, Mourdock has softened his no-compromise tone, although Democrats will not let him retreat. Neither will Tea Partiers.
“The Tea Party will hold Mr. Mourdock to task. He knows we’re watching,” said Jim Heierman, 57, of Warsaw, a member of the group Silent No More.
Donnelly has had to do some maneuvering, too. Make no mistake about Indiana, Donnelly said in an interview, “it’s a state that is conservative, and I am, too.”
He underscored differences with the president: Donnelly supports a balanced budget amendment and the Keystone pipeline, which would allow oil to flow from Canada to US facilities.
Mourdock, meanwhile, has shrugged off branding attempts. “Everybody is trying really hard to put a label on me,” he said during a campaign stop in Logansport. “I’ve been a conservative even before there was a Tea Party.”
The movement burst onto the political scene about three years ago. A tsunami of anger over burgeoning deficits, the president’s health care law, and what activists consider an erosion of principles propelled Tea Party backed candidates to seats on Capitol Hill, helping Republicans take control of the House in 2010.
Since then, Tea Party activists have influenced the congressional agenda and the attitude of the broader Republican Party, their no-compromise approach to spending cuts and their antigovernment fervor often shaping the debate and stalling action.
Yet, its antigovernment agenda is under scrutiny. A Washington Post/ABC News poll last month showed that 46 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of the movement, compared with 32 percent who held it in good esteem.
As a result, some vulnerable Republicans have tried to distance themselves from the movement’s spitfire rhetoric.
In New York, Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney is attacking Hayworth as a Tea Party pugilist bent on destroying Medicare. Hayworth denies she will harm the program, and her spokesman dismissed the label of partisanship.
“She’s not out there with guns blazing, like some other Tea Party candidates,” said the spokesman, Mike Knowles. “But she’s not running away from the Tea Party, either.”
There’s no holstering of rhetorical guns in south Florida, where West is in a nasty contest with Democrat Patrick Murphy.
West has described his opponent as a spoiled brat. Last month, he hit Murphy with an ad recounting the Democrat’s arrest for public intoxication, when Murphy was a 19-year-old college student. The charge was dropped.
Democrats have fought back, bashing West in a television spot for his outrageous comments, including statements calling for censoring the US news media and asserting that “78 to 81” Democratic House members were card-
Tea Party activists have had previous stumbles.
In 2010, the Republican establishment hoped to pull off a coup by unseating Senate majority leader Harry Reid in Nevada, but scrappy Sharron Angle beat their candidate in the primary, only to lose to Reid in the general election. In Delaware, Christine O’Donnell, who famously proclaimed she was not a witch, beat longtime moderate Representative Mike Castle in the GOP Senate primary but was handily defeated by Democrat Chris Coons after being cast as too far in the fringes.
“These were races Republicans should have won, if they had a mainstream Republican running,” said Marjorie Hershey, a political scientist at Indiana University. “If Richard Lugar were running in the general election, Joe Donnelly wouldn’t have a prayer.”
Tea Party candidates, however, have been able to tap deep-pocketed groups for support. Club for Growth Action has spent $13.3 million to fund races across the country, according to figures tabulated by OpenSecrets.org, compared to $5 million for all of 2010. And FreedomWorks for America, which spent only $350,000 nationwide in 2010, has already spent nearly $10 million to benefit candidates, including $1.5 million in Indiana on behalf of Mourdock. In Indiana, about $17 million has been spent by outside groups.
FreedomWorks is also bankrolling five “freedom centers” across Indiana, at which Tea Party activists staff phone banks and mobilize volunteers.
Among those volunteers is Bill Palmer, an amiable 73-year-old retired postal worker who lives near Wabash. He riffed about why the country is headed toward ruin: costly programs like Medicare and food stamps, government waste, and politicians who lack fiscal discipline.
“We can’t keep going the way we’re going. The problem is with both parties, not just Democrats. They just want to go along with Obama,” Palmer said. “That’s why we need more conservatives in Washington; that’s why we need Richard Mourdock in the Senate.”
But Matt Long, a 35-year-old paramedic approached as he worked on his house, had his doubts about Mourdock. “I’ve seen all the commercials. He seems like an ultra-right-wing guy,” he said. “That’s not something I really want. Right now, nothing really gets done.”
No single contest will foretell the future of the Tea Party movement, said Brigitte Nacos, a political scientist at Columbia University conducting research on the Tea Party. “But clearly, Indiana in particular is a showcase for the Tea Party,” she said.