Minn. tea partiers try quieter tack in 2012 campaignsby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
CHISAGO CITY, Minn. — Two years ago, Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack unseated a longtime Democratic incumbent after months of raucous tea party-inspired interruptions of political gatherings culminated in the 2010 mid-term elections that gave the GOP control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Sparked by the federal government's bailout of Wall Street, the conservative anti-tax and spending movement asserted itself nationwide that year, growing into intense opposition of the federal healthcare overhaul championed by President Barack Obama.
This year, however, supporters of the tea party have been far less vocal, allowing the political cycle to run a more-typical course. That could be a bad sign for Republicans like Cravaack who rode the tea party wave to Washington.
"I don't know what the problem is, why they don't have the strength that they had a couple of years ago," said Kent Linblad, a resident of Lindstrom, Minn. "It's just like they backed off."
Cravaack, a retired Navy pilot and then a stay-at-home dad, was a favorite of 8th District tea partiers.
Today's relatively quiet tea party is a far cry from the at times rambunctious movement of two years ago, when an October debate simmered with anger over the Washington establishment, a fervor that contributed to Cravaack's surprise defeat of 18-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar.
Oberstar, a powerful figure in the nation's capitol, had difficulty getting his points across, and leaving the debate moderator little option but to shout back at the Cravaack supporters.
Trisha Funni, a tea party supporter from North Branch, Minn., who attended the rallies a couple of years ago, still remembers going to one gathering in front of Oberstar's office.
"We had just come home, because we knew the rally was there, and we had just been to the clinic with one of our kids," said Finnu, who found the rallies invigorating. "But we felt it was important enough to show up."
Today, Finnu said she and many of the others who demonstrated their anger two years ago are more carefully directing their energy, and that the course they're taking is a logical next step for the movement.
"You don't see them necessarily at rallies, but they're involved in campaign and they're writing letters and they're going to benefits and things like that," she said. "We're very, very involved."
Although sharp partisan contrasts remain, these days the tea party demonstrates less energy in the district, Linblad said.
"They were all over. They were really strong a couple of years ago," he said. "A couple of my friends were quite predominant in it and even getting some of the programs together, but I haven't myself heard much from them lately."
But the tea party movement brought changes to Republican Party politics.
Chisago County Republican Party vice chairman Darrel Trulson said that as the tea party movement was exploding a few years ago, local GOP officials rewrote their constitution to try to make the party more accessible to newcomers. He said the changes paid off.
"The tea party here in Chisago County and, you know, this little area, has really been absorbed by the Republican Party," he said.
Trulson says that tea party enthusiasts have moved from rallying to doing behind-the-scenes campaign work.
"The tea party, what did they do? They would go and rally and 'rah rah,' cheer, cheer like a football game, and that's great," he said. "But then there was nothing for them to do afterwards. Here we're giving them more of a structure."
Trulson predicts that structure is going to help bring in votes for conservative politicians, including Cravaack.
But University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs doubts tea party energy, public or behind-the-scenes, is anywhere near what it was in 2010.
"The tea party looks to be fading," he said.
While the tea party remains influential in intra-party contests, such as endorsements and primaries, Jacobs said the movement is not likely to be a major force in the November election.
"The tea party is at risk of becoming a flash in the pan," he said. "This is very common in American politics over the centuries where we've seen powerful protests organizations form, they have a big impact but it tends to be an impact that's restricted to an election or two."
An ABC News/Washington Post poll late last month found just 32 percent of Americans view the tea party favorably, down nine percentage points from the party's peak in the spring of 2010.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Kent Lindblad is a tea party supporter. It also incorrectly stated that Chip Cravaack's hometown is Lindstrom. Cravaack used to live in Lindstrom, but now has a home in North Branch, Minn. The current version is correct.
- All Things Considered, 10/23/2012, 5:24 p.m.