The Tea Party is no longer a movement – it is an institution. The victory of Ted Cruz last night in the Texas GOP Senate primary run off, all but assuring his win in November, illustrates how the Tea Party has come into its own. More specifically, the Tea Party has broadened its voice, now within the U.S. Senate. The 2010 Tea Party rumblings have in 2012 become political seismic shifts. The energy and enthusiasm of 2010 has been harnessed and institutionalized at the grassroots and government level. More importantly, because of this institutionalization, the Tea Party will continue to broaden and deepen its political influence for the foreseeable future.
In his acceptance speech last night, Ted Cruz’s most effusive thanks went to the grassroots. Though Cruz was a political newcomer and didn’t have the financial resources of his challenger, “establishment” Republican candidate David Dewhurst, Cruz was able to win because of the Tea Party’s grassroots support. It was this support in the form of phone bankers, block walkers, and sign posters that allowed the underdog Tea Party candidate to win. The Tea Party is no longer just about rallies and Sarah Palin stump speeches. It is about thousands of Americans putting in the work to sustain their conservative ideology. Organizations such as FreedomWorks have institutionalized the mundane workings of campaigns and localized the Tea Party movement, making it easy for their supporters to take actions beyond just voting.
The institutionalization of the Tea Party has also been the result of some luck. The rise of the Tea Party in the 2010 mid-term election coincided with the decennial redistricting of Congress and state legislatures. In almost all states, redistricting is driven by the majority party in the state assembly. And in 2010 the Republicans, propelled by the Tea Party movement, picked up close to 700 seats in state legislatures across the country. The GOP went from controlling 14 state legislatures to 26. Politically, what this has translated into is the creation of Republican and especially Tea Party friendly Congressional and state seats. In other words, the 2010 Tea Party was able to ensure its electoral safety at the very least until the next round of redistricting in 2020.
Over the last two years the Tea Party has made its biggest mark in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ideologically, they have pulled the Republican Party further to the right. But an even more significant element of the Tea Party in Congress has been its unwillingness to compromise, either with Democrats or fellow Republicans of a more moderate stripe. Until now, the U.S. House of Representatives brand of Tea Party politics has been tempered by the Senate, but that will be changing come November’s election.
With the addition of members such as Ted Cruz, the retirement of moderate Republican Senators, and the likely addition of another three or four Tea Party Senators, the Tea Party will cement its institutional influence in both chambers of Congress. The growth of the Tea Party within the Senate broadens the Tea Party’s scope of influence and it makes it long-term. Because senators serve six-year terms they have the ability to withstand short-term political bumps and can instead focus on further institutionalizing the movement that brought them to power.
On the political Richter scale, Cruz’s win last night scores an eight. His victory is not an isolated incident, but the indication of the Tea Party taking root across local, state, and national government. Most importantly the broadening and deepening influence of the Tea Party is solidly built upon grassroots support ensuring that this seismic shift is not short lived.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.