The Tea Party's Not Dying

Based on the changed culture of spending in Washington, it's too soon to write the tea party's obituary.

Al Teague of Myrtle Beach, S.C., holds a flag while attending a Tea Party rally in front of the U.S. Capitol, June 17, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

Congressional elections might not be the best indicator of the tea party's future.

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The Senate is on track to pass a benefits package soon for the long-term unemployed. The bipartisan deal, which was crafted by 10 senators, would extend federal jobless benefits for the next five months.

And after months of gridlock and in a major concession for Democrats – the costs of the deal will be covered.

[READ: Tea Party Grows Up, but Remains Grass Roots at Its Core]

It's a nod to the major shift that has happened on Capitol Hill over the last five years. It's a sign that even moderate Republicans are shying away from voting for emergency benefit packages if their costs cannot be covered. And It's a mark of success for the tea party.

For years, jobless benefits were extended without their cost being offset. Even under the Bush administration, in emergencies, unemployment insurance was given out to keep the economy afloat.

Yet, at precisely the moment when Congress is making nods to the tea party, the force that made Washington so obsessed with balancing its checkbook in the first place, the movement is being eulogized.

A lot of the condemnation of the tea party, the tales of its demise have centered around what comes next – a midterm election.

In the National Journal, Josh Kraushaar recently wrote that a lighter round of endorsements from tea party groups this year is a sign that anti-establishment groups like FreedomWorks are losing their influence.

"The group has stopped sticking its neck out for long-shot conservative insurgents," he wrote.

FreedomWorks contends that it is choosing its endorsements very carefully and that it is still waiting to see how a few races shape up before promising its resources.

“We are not looking for batting average," says Adam Brandon. the executive vice president of FreedomWorks.

In Kentucky, for example, businessman and tea party-endorsed candidate Matt Bevin lags far behind Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.  Yet, McConnell is just the type of candidate one might expect to be knocked out by a tea party challenger – a longtime incumbent and an occasional compromiser, who finds common ground with even Vice President Joe Biden in a pinch. But as it is, McConnell’s got more to worry about with his Democratic challenger than Bevin on his right flank. 

In Kansas, it looks to be more bad news for the tea party. Sitting Republican Sen. Pat Roberts was forced to admit he didn’t even own a house in Kansas anymore. Yet, the sitting senator is still up more than 25 points over his tea party challenger, Dr. Milton Wolf.

About the only Senate race where the tea party is gaining measurable ground against a Republican incumbent right now is in Mississippi, where Sen. Thad Cochran is fending off state Sen. Chris McDaniel. In that race, a familiar narrative has unfurled – a three-decade incumbent known for bringing home the bacon – a practice derided by the miserly tea party – is caught flat-footed by a young primary challenger who is energizing the base.

The narrative shaping up in Washington, is that the establishment is finally fighting back. In the National Journal, Kraushaar also argues "2014 is shaping up as the year the Republican establishment is finding its footing. Of the 12 Republican senators on the ballot, six face primary competition, but only one looks seriously threatened."

[OPINION: How to Tell if the Tea Party Is Winning]

Even so, it’s likely still too early to tell.

The future of the tea party in 2014 is still as unsettled as it was in the early months of 2012, when now Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was written off as too extreme and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., had a 25-point lead in the polls against state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

In South Carolina, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, might be comfortably leading his challengers now, but polls show he is still shy of winning the 50 percent he needs in the June primary to avoid a runoff. And just across the border in North Carolina, a bitter eight-way Republican primary remains impossible to predict. Obstetrician Greg Brannon, backed by Utah's Sen. Mike Lee, himself a tea party darling, is gaining traction among the party’s conservative base, while more moderate support appears to be coalescing around North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis.

And even though the tea party is no longer protesting with the vigorousness and frequency as it was in 2010 – rallying around a "Fire Pelosi" bus, for example – voters who identify as tea party members are among the GOP's most involved in elections. As Molly Ball wrote in Democracy Journal, "The tea party appears to have lost much of the media presence, grass roots energy, organizational backbone and fundraising clout that powered it in 2010. That is not to say it couldn't have an impact in select races, and doesn't still have vocal proponents in Congress."

Alan Abramowitz, an expert in voter behavior and professor of political science at Emory University, says in the traditionally lower turnout out midterm elections, even small groups of motivated voting segments can have a real effect. 

“The tea party does tend to be more active than other Republican voters,” he says. “I still think there is a potential for them to make a show in 2014.”

Defeating Senate incumbents is still an enormous undertaking and a rare feat. Many pundits and experts who have been watching the tea party develop, note the widespread media coverage of anti-establishment victories like that of Cruz and Mourdock may have overstated the tea party’s ability to take out incumbents in the first place. Even in good years, they say, the tea party still didn’t find overwhelming success.

“Congressional races are tough mark of a movement’s influence,” says Ronald Rapoport, a third party expert at the College of William and Mary. “It is really remarkable when it happens. You don’t see it often. In a lot of ways, the expectations of what the tea party could do, might have been set too high from the beginning.”

In 2012, the tea party had some success, but it also lost a lot along the way. Perhaps, no primary race better illustrated its spotty success than the race against incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, where the "tough old bird" defeated tea-party backed candidate and former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.

[ALSO: Tea Party Legacy? More Debt.]

In a Washington Post piece, Chris Cillizza writes that what matters in the tea party is not how many candidates challenge incumbents, but whether or not they win.

"Without adding to their ranks among elected officials, the tea party movement runs the risk of stagnating or beginning to backslide," Cillizza writes.

But grading the tea party based off its primary victories is tricky. Take the Texas primary this year. While, some of the federal candidates aligned with the tea party like Katrina Pierson fell short of taking out incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions, down the ballot, in races for the lieutenant governor and the attorney general, the tea party made gains.

Yet, winning in 2014 may not be the right metric to measure the tea party's success at all. It’s goal has always been to limit Capitol Hill spending and with that lens, it’s impossible to pretend the tea party hasn't been a relevant force. It’s a screech in the ears of leadership, a constant reminder of where the Republican base stands outside the confines of Capitol Hill. It was members of the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party who dragged leadership through a government shutdown in October. It was many of the same voices within the “hell no” caucus who dissuaded leadership from making immigration reform a priority in an election year even though Republicans will need Latino voters to win the White House in 2016.

In Congress, the tea party is especially on the minds of GOP lawmakers facing primary challenges this cycle. When asked what he thought of the tea party’s fifth birthday last month, Graham, who has been criticized for voting with Democrats on controversial topics like immigration in the past, smiled and paused. He wished the movement well, even as it launched an offensive against him.

And recently, a simple procedural vote to keep the country from defaulting on its debt hung in the balance for nearly an hour as Republican senators jockeyed off the floor. At issue was who would have to go on record supporting the tea party opposed, but economically necessary measure. In the end, McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, both members of leadership came forward together to advance the bill, despite facing tea party primary challengers.

The tea party’s enthusiasm and involvement in politics, like that of the progressives on the left, will undoubtedly wane and wax from one election to another. Today, the economy is not roaring back, but it’s trudging along and the president, whom many rallied against in 2010 and 2012, cannot be replaced.

Yet, the tea party has still left its mark on Capitol Hill. It's still in the minds of senators who will vote soon for a package to extend long-term unemployment benefits that already have a pay-for attached.