Democratic, Republican and Tea: How Three Parties Shaped the 2011 State Legislative Sessions

By Constance Campanella, President and CEO

Revolutions often turn sour for the revolutionaries – even in victory. It is one of the most powerful lessons of the American Revolution that the victors did not become the new dictators, but instead invested their success in a system that could empower and protect the citizenry.

With that American system came the alliances we have come to know as political parties and for most of the past 235 years, dozens of political parties have formed and fizzled, leaving just a couple in dominant roles nationwide.

While the Reform, Libertarian, Green and many other parties failed to root themselves sufficiently to gain real power and success, the Tea Party has proven to be the most potent, non-party entity in American politics – perhaps on par with the Suffragates at the turn of the 20th Century or the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

Less a political party than a political movement, the Tea Party reached its apex of power on November 4, 2010. As a result, the proximate beneficiary of Tea Party enthusiasm – the Republican Party — claimed the U.S. House of Representatives, 29 Governorships, 56 State Legislative bodies and 24 State Attorneys General offices – a history-making bounty of political power.

In 2011, the victorious Tea Partiers, allied Republicans and even a few Democrats set to work in the states to confront high taxes, stagnant business climates, high unemployment and depressed revenue streams.

And, there was a welcome mat of sorts as state lawmakers across the U.S. showed respect for a movement that swept almost 800 new Republicans into office in 2010. If Tea Party was the wave, incumbents were trying to learn how to ride it and not drown under it.

But, almost immediately, state lobbyists began to voice their frustration with this new cohort – a combination of fiscal hawks, libertarians and conservative social issue devotees. While industry lobbyists generally prefer Republican control, this new group was not exactly what they expected.

More zealous and less tolerant of “go along, get along” tactics, the Tea Partiers immediately began to flex their muscles both at Democrats and at fellow Republicans deemed to be “moderates.” Willing to shut governments down, slash budgets and confront public sector labor unions, the Tea Party lawmakers acted on their agendas with speed, focus and ferocity that unnerved the traditional players. They were not just freshmen, they were freshmen on a mission.

Further complicating their transition from activists to lawmakers, was the adoption of non-fiscal issues by Tea Party lawmakers such as illegal immigration and school vouchers. Some even regard Tea Party support for nationwide efforts to reign in excessive public sector union contracts as a departure from the core agenda. Others see it as an essential component of fiscal discipline.

While not part of the Tea Party (T.E.A. – Taxed Enough Already) core agenda, these other issues do reflect the core conservatism that most Tea Partiers embrace.

But, it is the fiscal agenda that has defined the Tea Party influence in 2011. In state after state, the Tea Party legislators – deft in both social networking and media relations – kept stoking the constituency that elected them. They formed Tea Party caucuses and co-opted the Republican leadership and agendas.

The Tea Party 2011 Rollercoaster

In the Texas legislature, where Democrats have been relegated to positions behind the backbench, Tea Party legislators prevented a raid on the Rainy Day fund, pushing government budget cuts instead to close the $27 billion budget gap. That Rainy Day fund was raided in 2003 and 2005 under the same Republican Governor.

In Arizona, many conservative elected officials and candidates gravitated to the Tea Party. State Senator Russell Pearce (of S.B. 1070 fame) successfully campaigned for many candidates utilizing the illegal immigration issue to its fullest. Most of his candidates won giving the GOP a huge 21-9 advantage over Democrats in Arizona’s Senate. Pearce was elected President of the Senate by his Republican caucus last November, and immediately declared his legislative body “the Tea Party Senate”. Tea Party activists held demonstrations at the Arizona state capitol during the 2011 legislative session encouraging the Republican controlled legislature to make massive cuts in state government. Due to Arizona’s historical budget deficit, the legislature and GOP governor passed an $8.3 billion budget that included cuts of more than $1 billion in education and Medicaid programs – with the Tea Party cheering them on.

Now, Senator Pearce faces the prospect of a recall election that is within 1,700 signatures of becoming a reality.

In Minnesota, Tea Party supported lawmakers comprise more than half of the Republican majority in the Senate and nearly half of the majority in the House. First term Governor Mark Dayton (D) has taken to calling his opponents “extreme right-wing caucus members” who do not know how government works. A government shut down will occur on July 1 if the sides cannot compromise on a new two-year budget by closing a $5 billion budget gap. Observers insist that unlike the 2005 shut down under then-Governor Tim Pawlenty (R) – the partisan fervor is likely to make this event longer and more harmful.

Wisconsin and Florida Governors – Scott Walker and Rick Scott – both vocal and enthusiastic Tea Party supporters – have seen their public polling numbers nose dive, despite winning large portions of the Tea Party agenda in their first few months in office.

Also in Wisconsin, six Republican Senators face recall elections along with three Democratic Senators – a reaction to the protests that occurred in Madison in February when Democratic Senators fled the Capital to thwart Republican efforts to reform public sector compensation.

In Virginia, which holds legislative elections in 2011, observers credit the Tea Party with strengthening Republican commitment to core conservative values as the Old Dominion continues to behave as a swing state.

Next?

About 20 state legislatures remain in session in 2011, so more Tea Party-fueled events are likely before year end. But, the real test of enduring power will come in 2013, following the 2012 elections. If Tea Party-supporters again triumph and claim more and bigger majorities, this political movement may yet become what its name implies.

Discussion

What evidence have you seen that the Tea Party is either here to stay or not likely to be long lived?

Do you think the Tea Party movement will morph into a true third party or remain as a prod to the Republicans to stay on the conservative path?

Is the Tea Party likely to stretch into more issues? If so, can it keep itself focused with the same intensity as was seen in 2009-2011?

I would like to extend my thanks to friends and colleagues in the states who provided information and perspective for this blog. Some chose to remain anonymous, but special thanks to Chris Herstam of Lewis & Roca in Phoenix, Rob Jones of Alliance Group Ltd in Richmond, Lisa Ard of Cornerstone Strategy Group in Tallahassee and Jim Daughton of Metz, Husband and Daughton in Tallahassee, Jeremey Shepherd of Martin Schreiber Associates in Madison and Phil McFarren of the McFarren Group in Harrisburg for their thoughtful perspectives. – CC

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