It was Tax Day 2009 when citizens gathered in 850 cities across the nation for tea party rallies protesting the recent $700 billion federal bailouts of banks and automakers, an $800 billion economic stimulus package, and, more broadly, government deficits and debt.
On April 15 this year, Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest tea party groups, will sponsor “Stop Socialism, Choose Freedom” rallies across the country.
On the movement’s 10th anniversary, the phrase “tea party” is seldom used, but organizers there at the beginning say the spirit and principles continue—even as the country continues to face mounting fiscal challenges.
One reason tea partiers aren’t “outside protesters” today is that many of the citizens who never before had been involved in politics rose to prominence in the Republican Party.
“Tea party activists are not meeting outside the party system any longer,” Brendan Steinhauser, a former FreedomWorks staffer who was the lead organizer for the Taxpayer March on Washington on Sept. 12, 2009, told The Daily Signal. “They are now precinct chairs, county chairs, or state chairs of the Republican Party.”
The modern tea party movement largely is credited to an on-air rant by CNBC commentator Rick Santelli, who on Feb. 9, 2009, called for Americans to have a “tea party” protest.
Santelli’s comments went viral and about 35,000 people in 50 cities attended the first-ever tea party rallies on Feb. 27, 2009.
Back then, Karen Jaroch was a mother and engineer in Tampa who hadn’t been involved in politics before.
“I was a stay-at-home mom at the time and was afraid of losing my country,” Jaroch, now a regional coordinator in Florida for Heritage Action for America, told The Daily Signal. “Citizens didn’t see politicians in either party representing them, but just rubber-stamping bailouts and stimulus.”
The Heritage Foundation gave its Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship to the tea party movement in 2010. The leading conservative think tank makes the award annually to citizens who uphold American principles and embody the virtues of the Founding Fathers.
Was the Tea Party Successful?
Steinhauser, now a political strategist in Austin, Texas, called it a “complicated answer” to say whether the tea party movement has been a long-term success.
“On one hand, we have a $22 trillion debt that Congress and the [Trump] administration are not talking about,” Steinhauser said.
On the other, he said, the movement elected many constitutional conservatives to Congress who have had a major impact.
Steinhauser focused on Utah and Pennsylvania, where Mike Lee and Pat Toomey replaced two GOP establishment incumbents, Robert Bennett and Arlen Specter, in the U.S. Senate.
Thanks to the tea party movement, he noted, Marco Rubio is a GOP senator from Florida instead of Charlie Crist (now a Democratic House member). Ted Cruz and Rand Paul beat establishment Republican picks for the Senate in Texas and Kentucky, respectively.
Steinhauser also recalled that an Indiana congressman named Mike Pence spoke at several tea party rallies. Pence today is vice president after being elected Indiana governor.
“I would have loved entitlement reform, a flat tax, and a balanced budget amendment,” Steinhauser said. “But, we’ve seen success and had so many judges approved because of conservatives elected to the Senate.”
Today, Tea Party Patriots’ focus continues to be “personal freedom, economic freedom, and a debt-free future,” said the group’s co-founder and national coordinator, Jenny Beth Martin.
“We have not solved the national debt, but we have engaged Americans across the country, [and] trained people to run for office, to help others get elected, and how to hold them accountable when they are elected,” Martin told The Daily Signal. “It is the legacy of the tea party movement that more people elected to Congress now understand and champion constitutional principles.”
Tea party members of Congress definitely left a lasting impact beyond the watershed 2010 election, said Jason Pye, who was a local organizer for an early rally in Atlanta on Feb. 27, 2009.
The three biggest successes for the tea party movement, Pye said, have been winning 63 House seats to retake the majority in 2010; winning passage of the Budget Control Act that led to more than $1 trillion in savings; and, because it stemmed from a Republican majority achieved with tea party backing, passing the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
“Before the tea party movement, you could maybe count on two hands the number of die-hard fiscal conservatives in the House. Now there are 40 to 60,” Pye, now vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks, told The Daily Signal.
“In the House and Senate, the spirit is still very much there, but Republicans in leadership have at times disenchanted many that were associated with the tea party.”
IRS Targeting Scandal
Both Pye and Steinhauser contend the tea party movement began to wane when outside groups tried to attach advocacy for traditional values, immigration, and the Second Amendment to what began as a movement focused on fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, and limited government.
The tea party also was at the eye of the storm because of a major scandal during President Barack Obama’s term.
The Obama administration’s Internal Revenue Service targeted and delayed the applications of numerous local tea party groups that filed for nonprofit status.
To investigate the matter, the Justice Department appointed a Democratic donor, who found no legal wrongdoing by IRS officials.
However, the IRS settled a national class action lawsuit with tea party groups for $3.5 million.
Jaroch co-founded a tea party group that helped defeat a local sales tax. During the 2012 election cycle, the organization looked at obtaining nonprofit status, until it had to answer a massive number of questions from the Internal Revenue Service.
“The IRS attacked people in the process of trying to become a nonprofit,” Jaroch said. “The vast intimidation campaign, I think, is why Obama was able to win a second term. It stifled a movement. Also, the Republicans never fully embraced the tea party.”
Trump and the Tea Party
Many tea party activists initially were leery of Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primaries of 2016, but since his election they have supported Trump’s governing.
“He has tried to keep his campaign promises,” Martin said of Trump. “While he doesn’t talk about the debt, he is growing the economy. That will make it easier to pay down the debt. The national debt will also be easier to pay down if you stem the flow of illegal immigrants.”
Trump doesn’t get a perfect score in the context of what the tea party wanted from the early days, Pye said.
“Trump deserves a lot of credit for rolling back regulations and cutting taxes, but, for spending and tariffs, the administration deserves a lot of criticism,” he told The Daily Signal.
For tea partiers, there is “a lot of gray” regarding Trump, Steinhauser said.
“Full disclosure, I would have loved to see Ted Cruz become president, because that would have meant a full tea party takeover,” he said.
“On the other hand, Trump is an outsider, a business guy there to disrupt the establishment. We give him credit when he aligns with us and will be critical when he doesn’t.”