What Makes Someone a Tea Partier?

By
Sharron Angle at her debate with Harry Reid last night. Photo: Mark Ralston/Getty Images

With America set to usher in a new class of congressmen, both the AP and the New York Times crunched the numbers on how many tea-party candidates are running for the House (and Senate) this year nationwide, how many have a shot at actually winning, and, consequently, how much influence the tea-party movement will have within the walls of Congress next year. On how many congressional tea-party candidates are viable, the Times and the AP basically agree — 33 or 35, according to their respective calculations. Where their numbers diverge, though, is in how many tea-party candidates there are running for the House in total, regardless of viability. The Times says that, overall, 138 tea partiers are on the ballot for Congress this year. The AP says 70.

This is not a tiny disparity. But it doesn't mean one of the media outlets is "wrong." Instead, the wide latitude in discerning which candidates count as "tea partiers" is emblematic of the unstructured nature of the tea-party movement itself. Tea-party candidates, for the most part, don't run in a "Tea Party" primary, and don't get nominated by an actual "Tea Party." They generally run in Republican primaries, and are nominated as Republicans. So how are the Times and the AP sorting the tea-party Republicans from your everyday, run-of-the-mill Republicans?

The AP explains its process:


In identifying candidates, the AP assessed factors including a candidate's history with the movement, the involvement of local leaders and activists in a campaign, endorsements or support from tea party-affiliated groups and whether a candidate is running on a platform that dovetails with the movement's agenda.

As does the Times:


For purposes of the list, Tea Party candidates were those who had entered politics through the movement or who are receiving significant support from local Tea Party groups and who share the ideology of the movement. Many have been endorsed by groups like FreedomWorks or the Tea Party Express, or by conservative kingmakers like Sarah Palin and Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, but those endorsements alone were not enough to qualify as a Tea Party candidate.

These seem like fairly similar guidelines, but they're also both similarly vague. Which policies are included in a tea-party "platform" or "ideology"? Is it enough to believe in cutting spending, lowering the deficit, and repealing "Obamacare"? Because, ostensibly at least, that's what most Republicans believe. Do you have to advocate for repealing an amendment to the Constitution or abolishing a federal department as well? Furthermore, with hundreds or thousands of independent local tea-party chapters around the country, it's not hard for a Republican candidate to get at least one endorsement from a tea-party group. Would that be enough to qualify as a tea-party candidate? If not, how many local endorsements does one need?

This isn't so much about math as about the influence that the tea party will have in Congress. Counting how many tea partiers are elected to office won't give you an accurate measure. Essentially, we have to think of each congressman and senator as falling somewhere along the tea-party spectrum. We'll have no trouble figuring out where to place prospective senators Sharron Angle or Rand Paul, or in the House, Ohio candidate Steve Stivers, who wants to axe the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, "and others." But almost every Republican, and even some Democrats, will embody the tea-party movement to varying degrees. This is especially true for any Republican whose re-nomination in 2012 is anything less than a sure thing. In that respect, the influence of the tea party in Congress goes far beyond the number of "tea-party candidates" — whatever that means — elected this year.

Tea Party Candidates: At Least 70 Are On Ballots, About Half In Close Races [AP via HuffPo]
Tea Party Set to Win Enough Races for Wide Influence [NYT]