What's the tea party movement to do? Former Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., isn't wandering the halls of Congress anymore, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., isn't coming back after 2014, and former Sen. Jim DeMint, D-S.C., might just be a few blocks from Capitol Hill, but he doesn't seem to be wielding the influence some had hoped at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The tea party might be losing its standard bearers at an alarming rate, but with the IRS scandal still unfolding and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act just beginning, don't write any obituaries yet.
"With each passing day, the 2014 cycle is shaping up more and more like the 2010 cycle," says GOP pundit Matt Mackowiak, founder of political consulting firm Potomac Strategy Group and former press secretary to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. "Tea party and conservative voters are getting more motivated and Democratic voters are less enthusiastic about the election. Scandals are demoralizing for the Democrats."
The IRS's confession that it directed extra scrutiny to tea party groups who were applying for tax-exempt status has created a rallying cry and recruitment tool for groups that appeared to be fading into the woodwork in recent years after being blamed for some of the GOP's 2012 campaign blunders.
Reports last week showed tea party groups were being flooded with funds after the news broke. And a Rasmussen Report poll revealed that the movement's approval rating had jumped 14 points to 44 percent approval since January.
"It has been invigorating and we have seen an increase in activity," says Sal Russo, the co-founder of Tea Party Express. "We have seen that more candidates want to get involved and want to run with us."
A class-action lawsuit being filed by 25 tea party groups against the IRS is also guaranteed to keep the movement in the spotlight heading into the 2014 election. And any mishaps with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act – a key law the groups campaigned against in 2010 – will only build on the momentum.
So if the movement is making a comeback, why are many key leaders falling to the wayside?
"Our goal always was to have multiple spokesmen, not to have a top down organization," Russo says. "We saw that the Ross Perot movement created a top down organization and it was all tied to him personally. When he faded, the movement faded. We have always encouraged multiple faces. We have always been happy with 3,000 independent groups making their own decision."
Ring leader, tea party darling, whatever qualifier you want to use to describe her, there is no arguing that Bachmann served as a key voice for the tea party during committee hearings, on the presidential campaign trail and stumping for the group's central principles of smaller government, lower taxes and religious freedom.
And tea party spokesmen say there are a few reasons Bachmann assumed the role of tea party spokesman. She went to bat for her tea party patrons. She invoked the founders' legacy whenever possible, sponsored key legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act even though it was the 37th attempt and it was Bachmann who gave the tea party rebuttal to Obama's 2011 State of the Union in which she drove right over Rep. Paul Ryan's, R-Wis., mainstream GOP address.
But while the national conservative movement ate it up and encouraged her, Bachmann's constituents were less comfortable with her persona.
Of the $15 million Bachmann raised in 2012, a Center for Responsive Politics analysis shows that nearly 90 percent of the money came from supporters outside of Minnesota. And she won her district by just over 1 percent in 2012.
As other tea party firebrands have learned over the last year, a national tea party reputation doesn't always play well back home.
"The things you have to do to become a fundraising powerhouse are the same things that will then be used against you at home," Mackowiak says.
Former Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., was a tea party casualty who couldn't manage to spin national fundraising prowess into a legislative victory in 2012. Despite spending $18 million of his war chest to defeat Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., West fell flat.
But while the Bachmann, DeMint, West trifecta is fading away, the national debt clock is still running on the Tea Party Caucus's website and emerging leaders are waiting to take the reins. The outspoken Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who has been advocating against the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform plan or Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who was removed from plum committee assignments in January for not playing nice with GOP leadership, might be prime candidates to lead the tea party charge.
And in the Senate, leaders like Sen. Ted Cruz and anti-establishment Sen. Rand Paul have continued to preach on what they consider Constitutional principles as a cornerstone of their policies and gobbled up the media spotlight to promote their messages.
Tea party groups say they see the Senators as the future of the movement.
"There is a natural tendency for the Senate to be more out front than the House. It is tough to use the House as a national platform," Russo says. "They have become the new face of the tea party and that is a positive thing for us."
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