Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Is tea party all bark and no bite?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN contributor
May 7, 2014 -- Updated 1352 GMT (2152 HKT)
The tea party movement began with loosely knit activist groups, and has become a major player in American politics. It's primarily focused on fiscal issues, but also embraces a range of issues important to conservatives. Click through the following images to learn more about key tea party moments. The tea party movement began with loosely knit activist groups, and has become a major player in American politics. It's primarily focused on fiscal issues, but also embraces a range of issues important to conservatives. Click through the following images to learn more about key tea party moments.
HIDE CAPTION
10 tea party moments
10 tea party moments
10 tea party moments
10 tea party moments
10 tea party moments
10 tea party moments
10 tea party moments
10 tea party moments
10 tea party moments
10 tea party moments
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: In battle between tea party and establishment, the tea party is losing
  • He says mainstream candidates such as Boehner, McConnell not in danger of being unseated
  • Zelizer says Tuesday's vote showed the power of establishment GOP groups
  • He says the results could help tip the balance toward immigration reform legislation

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- There is mounting evidence that the electoral threat from the tea party is fading. In the power struggle between the tea party faction of the GOP and the "establishment," the establishment is winning.

Party primaries are an imperfect way to measure the direction in politics. The news from one week can be overshadowed by what happens a few weeks later. Primaries are just snapshots of the political landscape at a given moment.

But at least this week the news for tea party advocates was not good. The primaries are providing evidence as to how much of a threat the Republican leadership really faces when opponents attempt to unseat them for moving too far to the center.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

House Speaker John Boehner faced a twin tea party challenge from Republicans who claim he has been too willing to compromise. The tea party campaign in his district picked up some steam after the speaker made disparaging remarks about colleagues who were holding up the immigration bill. Tea party candidates J.D. Winteregg and Eric Gurr both went after him.

But Boehner enjoyed an easy victory Tuesday, putting aside speculation that discontent with his recent statements about immigration and the budget might cause him problems. There was never a genuine threat that he would be unseated, but a strong showing by his opponents would have been enough to send some shock waves to Washington. It didn't happen.

A more serious contest is taking place in Kentucky, where on May 20, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces off against tea party Republican Matt Bevin. Thus far, all the evidence suggests that McConnell will do just fine in the primary.

The primaries are also telling us something about the status of immigration as an issue in the GOP. The immigration reform legislation that passed the Senate has been held up by a faction of House tea party Republicans, equaling about 30 to 40 members, who have been steadfast in their refusal to let a bill pass. The opposition as well as threats of political harm made against anyone who dares speak in favor of reform has been a major barrier to passing legislation.

Yet the evidence is still thin that taking a hard-line, anti-immigration stance is the only way for a Republican to survive.

GOP contest a bellwether for midterms?
John King: House ads on tea party

As Politico recently noted, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's pro-reform group FWD.us has argued that the threat has been exaggerated, pointing out that few Republicans who have supported immigration reform have lost.

GOP establishment 1, tea party 0 after NC Senate primary

"Purely from a quantitative standpoint, the percentage of GOP primary voters who are hostile to what we might call ... all manner of immigration reform is pretty low," said Jon Lerner, a pollster working for Zuckerberg's organization.

Two Texas Republicans, Sam Johnson and John Carter, survived their primaries despite working on the immigration bill in the House. In his primary in March, Johnson won with more than 80% of the vote.

This week in North Carolina, Rep. Renee Ellmers defeated Frank Roche, a former currency trader, who targeted her for support for more liberal policies toward immigrants. "If an individual wants to come to this country to work, to provide for his family and to contribute to his community, he should be allowed to do so," she wrote. Roche attacked her for supporting "de facto amnesty."

Ellmers won. The victory provides more evidence that proponents of immigration reform, and there are many, can move forward with legislation and survive. As one expert at Cornell Law School told CNN, "If the primaries in spring and summer show immigration is not that big an issue with activists, then Republicans will feel they can go out on the limb and support reform."

The final lesson Tuesday has to do with the organizational and financial muscle of the tea party. Is it mostly bark, but no bite? This has been an issue that has dogged the tea party since it emerged in 2010. Can these activists really match the money and resources of the establishment?

In certain campaigns, establishment organizations, allied with business, have been putting substantial amounts of money to shape the outcome. They spent big to support conservative candidates who would be viable in the general election against Democrats.

In North Carolina, the primary between Thom Tillis, Mark Harris and Greg Brannon for the Republican candidacy in the race for the Senate seat currently held by Kay Hagan has been the center of attention. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky traveled to North Carolina to announce his support for Brannon.

Groups such as American Crossroads -- Karl Rove's organization -- have invested millions to back their candidate, Tillis. Once again, the establishment won. Tillis secured well over the 40% threshold he needed to avoid some kind of runoff.

His victory offers more fodder for those who have argued that tea party organizations such as the Tea Party Patriots and the Madison Project have been ineffective, squandering resources by spending more on fund-raising and direct mail than on their candidates.

Brian Walsh, who had worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, even downplayed their ability to shape the grass roots. "Their influence in terms of on-the-ground activity and spending money is greatly overstated. ... Their influence has generally been in the echo chamber, with talk radio and blogs."

It's important that this trend should not be seen as a victory of "moderate" Republicans over "far right" Republicans. The truth is that the entire GOP has shifted to the right, and these are all contests between different factions of conservative Republicanism rather than a true ideological war within the party.

The tea party still has a lot to prove. This week's primaries only made its case that much harder.

There are still opportunities for tea party Republicans to show they can deliver a punch on the campaign trail. But more poor showings at the polls will continue to strengthen the Republican establishment in its effort to quash the tea party as a political power in its caucus.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT