In past elections, Texas’ tea party groups have played a visible role, generating grassroots enthusiasm among Republicans who want less government and lower taxes. But this year, especially compared with Democratic activists, tea partyers are playing a less conspicuous role.
Consider how different it was six years ago, when Ted Cruz began his campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Cruz barely registered in the polls when he announced his candidacy. Then, he began courting local tea party clubs, visiting three and four on a weekend. FreedomWorks, a national group aligned with the tea party movement, kicked in money and volunteers. The activists staged rallies, contacted possible voters on social media and distributed yard signs.
Cruz won the Republican primary, upsetting the traditional frontrunner, which all but assured Cruz the seat. He credited the tea party with contributing to his victory.
“Tonight is a victory for the grassroots,” he said. “It’s a testament to Republican women, to tea party leaders and to grassroots conservatives.”
Fast forward to 2018 and it’s Cruz’s Democratic opponent who has yard signs planted across Texas.
Beto O’Rourke is the candidate who has packed town hall meetings. He rocketed in the polls after leading hundreds of activists to the border town of Tornillo where they protested the tent city there that still houses immigrant children separated from their parents.
“This is not America. This is not us. This is not what we do,” O’Rourke told a chanting crowd.
Losing steam after success
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, says Democrats nationally — and in some parts of Texas — have unleashed the kind of intensity we used to see from the tea party.
“So the question of whether there is still that ability to motivate Republican voters on the other side is the big question going into this cycle,” Henson said.
Henson believes one reason the tea party’s galvanizing force has slipped in local and congressional races is that conservatives no longer have Barack Obama to target. And Donald Trump has taken over the role of chief agitator of conservatives.
Tea party-backed candidates have also been elected. In Texas, the movement has been changed by that success.
“I think once you have people who are part of institutions, it inevitably looks different, because you aren’t banging from the outside,” Henson said. “Like it or not, you are part of the status quo, and you are part of the establishment.”
Being labeled “establishment” makes some tea partyers cringe. But they get the fact that they’re now creating policy, not just criticizing it.
Money's effect on the movement
In the Texas House, 12 tea party-elected Republicans have formed the Freedom Caucus. At a recent public policy forum organized by The Texas Tribune, three Freedom Caucus members — state Reps. Matt Rinaldi of Irving, Matt Krause of Fort Worth and Matt Schaefer from Tyler — sounded a lot like other Republicans.
“I do think we need to get rid of Robin Hood,” Rinaldi said.
“What I’d like to see is property tax relief,” said Krause, when asked about his priority for the upcoming session.
“You can’t have true property tax relief without true spending restraint,” Schaefer added as he called for scrubbing the state budget.
Schaefer is quick to say, however, that while tea party Republicans share some goals with more traditional Republicans, their objectives are different.
“I think there is a tendency for Republicans in the mainstream to gravitate towards the bureaucracy, to gravitate towards large corporate business interests,” Schaefer said. “It's not what the Texas Association of Business says that is important. We’re going to go back to the grassroots, people on the street, constitutional principles.”
What doesn’t seem very grassroots to critics, though, is the big money tea party candidates now get from some West Texas billionaires and their Empower Texans PAC. The group has donated millions to candidates who have supported cutting taxes, private school vouchers, anti-abortion legislation and a failed “bathroom bill,” which would have restricted bathrooms used by transgender Texans.
The big donations may speak to a tea party movement that is a little less independent and a little less hungry. Some of the local Texas chapters, including one in Arlington, have shut down.
'Yard signs don't elect people'
Fran Rhodes, a leader in the still-influential Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, says she doesn’t really care if the movement is as visible as it used to be, because she believes experience has made it more effective.
“We’ve been able to focus our efforts in the places we need to focus,” she said.
“Yard signs don’t elect people,” she reasoned, as she explained the shift in her group’s election strategy. “Rallies are fun, but they don’t get people out to vote necessarily. The very most effective thing you can do is talk to voters. So we do a lot of door knocking. We do a lot of phone banking.”
Still, Henson believes Republicans may have lost something important.
“Should the Republican Party lose ground in this election, you are going to hear the argument that the loss was, in part, due to the decline in intensity of the activist wing of the Republican Party,” he said.
This election, then, may be a test of whether grassroots passion has shifted from tea party Republicans to Democrats, and whether it’s enough of a shift to determine who wins in Texas.