In June, U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador served as the emcee of the Idaho Republican State Convention in Moscow. For two days, he attempted to broker peace—or at least a truce—between factions of the state party that had been festering for at least the past four years. Awkwardly, Labrador, whose first-term election in 2010 rode the crest of the national Tea Party wave, was now in the position of playing mediator between so-called “establishment” party leaders and a contingent of libertarian and Tea Party-aligned activists who have worked to place key supporters in precinct-level positions throughout Idaho.
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The convention followed Labrador’s easy re-nomination for his seat and May 20 primary victories for incumbent Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson against challenges from the right flank of the state party. In all of this, Idaho serves as a microcosm for larger issues within the national Republican Party, which finds Tea Party activists a powerful mobilizing force—one that threatens to undermine support for the party when more centrist voters are key to winning elections.
The poor showing of the Tea Party in national and state elections indicates problems for a movement that seemed unstoppable a few short years ago.
The Tea Party in Idaho
At first glance, the Gem State would appear to be the ideal location in the United States for a grassroots libertarian movement. A recent article in the Journal of Politics ranked Idaho’s citizens as having the most conservative public policy preferences at the state level, followed by Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota. Simple logic would suggest that if the Idaho public is more socially and fiscally conservative than many conservatives elsewhere—and the Tea Party is more conservative than so-called “mainstream” Republicans—then Idaho should be the epicenter of the Tea Party.
Yet a review of Tea Party activity in Idaho over the past four years suggests an uneven effectiveness not unlike that in the national movement. As the Idaho Statesman reported in March 2009, a rally organized by Idahoans for Liberty in Julia Davis Park attracted a scant 40 participants, though by the next month a nationally sponsored rally on the Capitol steps in Boise attracted “several thousand.”
Former Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick was the only Democrat anywhere in the country to be cited favorably by the national Tea Party Express group for voting against the 2009 federal stimulus bill. (Minnick would vote against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010.) Weaver’s recent piece in The International Journal of Press/Politics, co-authored with Joshua M. Scacco, “examines nightly cable news coverage of this movement by using key frames associated with the ‘protest paradigm’ — the tendency for media to marginalize movements by drawing attention away from core concerns raised by such movements.”
Clearly, this had more to do with the conservative constituency of the First District than true Tea Party allegiance on Minnick’s part. Yet this was not enough to salvage his seat; he would go on to lose to Labrador by 24,000 votes in the 2010 election, the Idaho Tea Party’s most significant electoral success to date in the state.
Challenges in Idaho and nationally
While the Tea Party more or less held its ground in 2012, the subsequent two years were not as kind. The 2014 primary season was a difficult one for the Tea Party nationally, which sought to replicate its earlier successes. Strategies that worked, for example, in unseating former Utah Sen. Robert Bennett in 2010, fizzled this election year. Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson’s primary challenger, Bryan Smith, received his heaviest financial and media endorsements from libertarian groups outside of Idaho—most notably Freedom Works, Citizens United, the Madison Project and the Club for Growth. Meanwhile, Simpson retained traditional endorsements from the National Rifle Association, an important one in a state where so many residents heavily prize the Second Amendment.
Perhaps because of Idaho’s solidly Republican reputation, it was the novelty and vigorousness of Smith’s challenge that prompted National Public Radio’s David Greene to travel to the 2nd Congressional District in January to see what this “bellwether” race might portend for the Tea Party writ large. Green’s intuition was prescient: Simpson would go on to win his primary with just over 61 percent of the vote.
Although former state Sen. Russ Fulcher did not explicitly campaign on a Tea Party platform, he did enjoy the support of Tea Party-aligned activists and elected officials in his primary challenge against Otter. By mid-May, Fulcher acquired Labrador’s endorsement and conjoined campaign signs began popping up in the western half of the Treasure Valley like a late spring flower. Given the Tea Party’s vehement disagreement with the Affordable Care Act, Fulcher was naturally poised to capitalize on populist distaste for Otter’s decision to take the “least-worst” option under the law and create a state-run health insurance exchange.
Of all the Tea Party-related challenges of the past four years, Fulcher’s margin was the most successful—after Labrador’s—leaving Otter with a thin 51 percent of the vote. Otter’s success was partly due to the backing of so-called “establishment” state party officials, but also his “oath of office” appeal: As an elected official, he is not only sworn to uphold the Idaho Constitution, but that of the United States government, as well.
Idaho citizens, like citizens elsewhere, have conflicting opinions, which prevent the kind of ideological purity that groups such as the Tea Party depend on to motivate their supporters. According to the 2011 Annual Idaho Public Policy Survey, a combined 58 percent of Idahoans strongly or somewhat agreed that Idaho should be able to opt out of the 2010 health care bill. Yet a combined 63 percent of Idahoans also strongly or somewhat agreed that “public funds should be used to help provide health insurance to people who cannot afford it”—hardly a libertarian response.
Similarly, while 59 percent strongly or somewhat disagreed that the state is “investing enough in higher education in Idaho,” only 39 percent either strongly or somewhat agreed “Idaho should raise the sales tax to support the higher education budget.” These numbers indicate a center-right electorate, but the Republican dominance in state politics means the centrist elements are not reflected in public policy.
Trends in the annual survey show that the number of independent or “unaffiliated” registered voters increased from 28 to 37 percent between 2007 and 2010, while the percentage of Republicans declined from 40 to 33 percent. When the Idaho Republican Party closed its caucus in 2012, it provided an opening for a more ideologically pure (and presumably smaller) Republican primary voter base. Yet neither Fulcher nor Smith appear to have benefited from this change, and in the last year, Republican registration has grown by some 40,000 voters, according to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office.
In the May primaries, Fulcher outperformed Otter in only two of the six counties in which Tea Party-aligned Ron Paul won in 2012; the one Paulite county in Simpson’s district (Camas) went in Simpson’s favor. Of course, in each case, there is the ever-important factor of incumbency. Otter raised more than $600,000 to Fulcher’s $80,000 and Simpson’s $556,000 cash-on-hand outshined Smith’s $231,000. Labrador never faced any significant opposition from fellow Republicans.
What’s next for the Tea Party?
In the wake of recent elections in Idaho and around the country, there has been much speculation about the future of the Tea Party. It bears remembering that in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, many pundits and political scientists were skeptical that this loose coalition of anti-government activists would have a long-term impact.
The normative bias in the news media and the academy is toward “impact,” as measured by the number of bills proposed or passed. Also important, however, is the power of negative politics—the ability to prevent policy from occurring in the first place. (Witness the futile, but symbolically important, attempts by U.S. House Republicans to defund or repeal the ACA.) The 112th Congress—the first featuring the newly elected Tea Party bloc—enacted slightly more than 200 public laws, far below historic norms. The 113th session is on track to perform similarly, having passed only 180 so far. By the standards of the Tea Party’s demand for a less vigorous federal government, this is a resounding success.
Electorally, the national Tea Party lost many of its primary elections this spring—most notably its challenge to Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran—but scored a symbolically important defeat of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia. In many ways, the Tea Party’s largest opportunity for success comes at the state and local levels, where the partisan cues are (relatively) less salient and many citizens can— but often do not—pay attention to public policy.
Political parties ultimately must govern, not simply win elections. The Tea Party, not unlike the diminished Occupy movement, originated as first and foremost a protest movement. Unlike Occupy, however, it intentionally focused on winning elections on the basis of the passion behind the protests. Now Tea Party officials must govern, with all of the requisite compromises and policy nuances.
Naturally, the national Republican Party seeks to simultaneously retain the enthusiasm and turnout of conservative activists while claiming to hold onto the remains of its own “big tent” tradition—one that recognizes a diversity of viewpoints within the party. If the party, here or elsewhere, cannot govern when it is in power because of a passionate segment of its base, it may ultimately find its base stripped of the centrists and disaffected Democrats who helped bring the party back to power 34 years ago.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.