The 2012 election exit poll by the major TV networks put tea party support among all voters at 21 percent – about half the 41 percent level it reached in the same exit survey for the 2010 congressional elections that swept Republicans back into control of the House of Representatives and cut Democrats’ margin in the Senate.
In another sign that the group’s clout may be waning, the main TV networks didn’t broadcast Paul’s “tea party response” to Obama’s State of the Union address late Tuesday, in contrast with their high-profile coverage of its first such rebuttal of Obama by Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota two years ago.
Sal Russo, a Sacramento, Calif., Republican consultant and prominent tea party strategist, said Wednesday that the movement’s apparent decline is deceiving.
“Thanks to a lot of attacks on it, the tea party label is definitely not as powerful today, but what makes the movement strong is not the label, but its issues,” Russo said. “Seventy percent of Americans think we need to address excessive spending and unsustainable debt, and that we need more opportunity for people to realize the American dream. That’s what the tea party stands for.”
Joe Dugan, a Myrtle Beach, S.C., retiree who heads the South Carolina tea party coalition, said the group remains a potent political force, noting that 440 leaders from the Carolinas, Florida, Virginia and other states attended the “State of the Union” tea party convention he helped host last month in his beach resort town.
Dugan holds Paul in great regard.
“One of things that irks me no end is that our politicians are afraid to talk honestly about what they believe,” Dugan said. “Sen. Paul is certainly not like that.”
Yet Dugan doesn’t see Paul as the second coming of DeMint.
“Sen. DeMint was unique and in a different era,” Dugan said. “I think there is no one senator now who is going to be singled out as the tea party leader. There is more of board of directors, if you will. It’s conceivable that Sen. Paul might be chosen as chairman of the board, but other people come to mind as well, such as (Sens.) Ted Cruz (of Texas), Tim Scott (of South Carolina) and Mike Lee (of Utah).”
In a telling postscript, Dugan added: “I hesitate to say ‘Marco Rubio,’ because some of his positions are not exactly in sync, particularly on immigration.”
Yet, Rubio and Paul both embraced the need for immigration reform in their speeches Tuesday night, another signal by Republicans that they must do more to woo Hispanic voters.
Paul responded cautiously when asked whether he wants to inherit the tea party mantle from DeMint.
“I like to associate myself with the tea party, but it is a grassroots, ground-up organization,” Paul said. “If I’m asked to provide a label for myself, I usually choose the label ‘constitutional conservative.’”