Two years after the tea party helped Republicans win control of the U.S. House, local activists continue to shape state politics and campaigns.
Since 2009, dozens of local tea party and tea party-like groups have sprouted across the state. They didn’t endorse a single slate of candidates, and it’s the rare tea party group that has money for donations or political ads. But they have brought an energy to politics that GOP candidates and other conservative groups use to charge their campaigns.
Four years ago, Barack Obama’s campaign in North Carolina overwhelmed Republicans in early voting on its way to a narrow upset win in the state. This year, Republicans have closed the early-voting gap. Political scientist Michael Bitzer sees tea party energy behind the robust Republican turnout for early voting, even as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has shifted his attention to Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin.
“It’s the surrogacy of the tea party that keeps the momentum going in this state,” said Bitzer, who teaches at Catawba College.
The tea party movement, which wants limited government and lower taxes, was born from opposition to the bank bailout. The federal stimulus law, the federal health care law and other Obama administration policies helped fuel the movement.
“This is a historic election year tea partiers have been waiting for since the beginning,” said Laura Long, organizer of Triangle Conservatives Unite.
The groups are leaving a mark on this year’s elections by asking candidates to respond to their signature issues of lower taxes and smaller government. They’ve also recorded candidates’ responses to more marginal issues, such as the United Nations proposal for sustainable development, which tea party activists see as a plan to undermine private property rights.
The western counties have some of the most active tea party groups, and getting behind candidates running for open seats is where their influence packs the most power, said Bill Sabo, a political scientist from UNC Asheville. The 11th District was redrawn to give a Republican candidate a better chance at winning, and the incumbent Democrat decided not to run for re-election.
“They’re trying to exert as much influence as possible,” Sabo said.
Tea party activists are a sought-after constituency for Republican candidates, even though more voters in the state have an unfavorable opinion of the movement than like it. According to a July poll by the conservative Civitas Institute, 37 percent of registered voters said they had a favorable opinion of the tea party, and 47 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion. The percentage of voters with unfavorable opinions had gone up since October 2011.
At least three Republican candidates for Congress were endorsed by local tea party groups this year: Mark Meadows of Jackson County who is running in the 11th District; Tim D’Annunzio, who’s running in the 4th District; and Jack Brosch, the candidate in the 12th District. D’Annunzio and Brosch are running in heavily Democratic districts.
A few candidates can include tea party activism on their political resumes.
Mattie Lawson, a Republican candidate for state House from Kill Devil Hills, helped organize a tea party tax protest in 2009. She credits her tea party connections with aiding her victory in a primary and run-off last spring and summer.
“They were instrumental in helping me get my message out and campaigning for me,” she said.
Dan Forest, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, embraced the tea party, conducting a statewide tea party tour and working with a tea party coordinator.
John Tedesco, the Republican candidate for state Superintendent for Public Instruction, nurtured the tea party connections he made more than two years ago, when he spoke at an anti-tax rally in Raleigh.
“They’re worker bees, that’s what they are,” said Sen. Jim Davis, a Macon County Republican who was endorsed by members of tea party and tea party-related groups in the state.
Earlier this year, tea party gatherings were important stops for Republican candidates jockeying for a leg-up in crowded primaries. Two Republican candidates running in the 11th Congressional District GOP primary appeared in back-to-back debates sponsored by separate tea party groups, the Blue Ridge Tea Party Patriots and the Asheville Tea Party.
But in the general election, tea party activists in the state haven’t exerted the kind of power seen in states like Indiana, where a tea party-backed candidate defeated a veteran Republican U.S. Senator in a primary this year, or in Kentucky, where they helped launch U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Republican freshman from Dunn who won in 2010 with tea party support, drew criticism from some tea party activists during her first term for voting too often with Republican House leaders. But she easily vanquished her GOP primary opponents.
North Carolina isn’t as solidly Republican as states where the tea party has helped elect its preferred candidates in high-profile statewide contests, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. And this year, there were no big races where local tea party groups could test their power.
That could change in two years, he said, when Republicans choose a candidate to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan.
“If there is a competitive race for the Republican nomination and there are clearly tea party anointed candidates and candidates the tea party wants to see lose, it will be an interesting tussle for the heart and soul of the Republican party,” Taylor said.