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Analysis: Five Years Later, GOP is Still Loving Its Tea

During its five-year lifetime, the Tea Party has lost some of its original focus on national spending and national debt. But it's hard to win a Republican primary without its support.

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The Tea Party in Texas got its start five years ago — Happy Birthday! — and has become the favorite label for a no-compromises variety of conservatism that might or might not have anything to do with the original idea embodied in the TEA acronym: Taxed Enough Already.

The political mood of the group at its start recalled Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign, with the charts and talk of ballooning federal spending and debt. On the Democratic side, Bill Clinton was ringing some of the same bells with concerned voters in a campaign branded with the now-familiar war room slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Those initial Tea Party rallies in 2009 had little to do with social conservatism; the focus was squarely on the fiscal side. It was the economy all over again, a reaction to a then-new Democratic president, stimulus packages, federal spending and debt. It also had a new and strong element of federalism, a motif adopted quickly by Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and other conservatives who heard the anti-Washington melody and started humming along.

Perry popped out a book — Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington — and then rode the themes through his 2010 re-election campaign. The first round pitted Perry against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a popular Republican who found herself suddenly identified as a denizen of horrible Washington, and Debra Medina, a newcomer with legitimate ties to the new Tea Party.

Politicians are magpies, stealing anything that looks like it works, and this Tea Party thing works. The 2010 general election — President Obama’s first midterm — was a Republican windfall in Texas. The most visible evidence of the boon was in the state House, where Republicans turned a two-vote edge into a supermajority in that November election.

Since then, it has been all but impossible to find a Republican in Texas who does not court the Tea Party. It has been appropriated, standing not as a separate entity or movement so much as the label for the most energetic faction within the GOP. More than half of Republican voters tell pollsters that they would be Tea Party members if that and the Republican Party were separate.

It no longer works as an identifier separating fiscal from social conservatives, or from movement conservatives, or populists, or the establishment, or moderates. With the appropriation of the group’s energy, Republicans have blurred the lines and made labeling tricky, like they did in earlier times with the religious right. Successful candidates have jumped into the fastest-moving line, which is one of the reasons they are successful candidates.

The four Republicans who ran for lieutenant governor — after Tuesday, two remain in contention — were battling for the title of most conservative. The incumbent, David Dewhurst, lost the 2012 primary runoff for the U.S. Senate to Ted Cruz, who was on his way to becoming the national poster boy for a Tea Party that has become adorned with other issues, like immigration. Fiscal matters remain critical, which is why the federal shutdown and sequester are rallying points, but in state races, some of the distinctions get lost.

Republican voters made themselves pretty clear on Tuesday, rewarding candidates who appeared to be the most conservative in each state race. Some of the runoffs — for attorney general and railroad commissioner, for example — commence as debates between establishment and movement conservatives.

Down the ballot in legislative races, the results were mixed. Some of the establishment got beat by candidates who ran as more conservative. Sen. John Carona of Dallas and Rep. Bennett Ratliff of Coppell are examples. Some survived, like Reps. Jim Keffer of Eastland, Angie Chen Button of Richardson and J.D. Sheffield of Gatesville. Some firebrands elected two years ago — like Sen. Donna Campbell of New Braunfels and Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford — survived establishment challenges, winning easily on Tuesday.

The federal candidates who faced serious or noisy challenges — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions of Dallas — got away easily this week. But those results had more to do with the shortcomings of their challengers than with the strength of the various Republican factions.

Not all of Tuesday’s winners carried the Tea Party label, but it is hard to find a winner anywhere on the Republican ballot who ignored the party’s most animated wing. In Texas, that wing has outflanked the establishment.

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