Love them, hate them, they’re in trouble. The Tea Party used to be that anti-establishment, anti-centrist wing of the Republicans; now, since 2012, they’re something of an establishment themselves. In the GOP presidential primaries, candidates like Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum and Rick Perry were outliers. Now, with 2016 still far off in the distance, presidential hopefuls from the Tea Party are the norm. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas: these are probably the three most prominent members of the group, with Paul Ryan quietly working in the halls of the House and Michele Bachmann not-so-quietly retiring. Rubio and Rand the most famous of the first Tea Party batch in 2010, and Ted Cruz wasn’t far behind in 2012, defeating Perry-backed primary candidate David Dewhurst. These three did more than their share of making the Tea Party such an integral part of American politics. But all three are acting as if they want the presidency-at the same time. Policymic recently reported on visits by Rand Paul to both Iowa and New Hampshire. In April, The Washington Post covered a Cruz trip to South Carolina. As for Rubio? He appeared on seven Sunday morning talk shows on April 17, making the case for immigration reform. These three senators have their eyes on the prize, it would seem, and that spells danger for the Tea Party. Too many candidates.
Some might ask why having too many big figures would be a problem for the Tea Party. Well, here’s why. If all three run for president in the GOP’s 2016 primaries, then none of them will win the nomination. Responding to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, 50% of people said that the more they heard about the Tea Party, the less they liked it. This poses a problem for Rubio, Paul, and Cruz, because there are only so many voters to whom a “Tea Party tone” will appeal. What are they going to do?
Rubio’s strategy seems to be a move to the middle. Once hailed as the “Crown Prince” of the Tea Party, Rubio has now become the poster boy for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that contains a “path to citizenship”, not a popular item among conservatives. Still, he has a large base of support within the movement that helped him defeat Charlie Crist in the GOP’s 2010 Senate primary race. Just last summer, the Tea Party Express promoted Rubio as a potential vice-presidential nominee. He was found to be a “strong candidate” by 66% of the poll respondents. Rand Paul, on the other hand, was seen as a strong candidate by less than 32% of the Tea Party Express supporters.
Yet, Rand Paul has a sizeable following of his own. After all, it was Rand Paul who spoke at what is considered by some now to be the first Tea Party rally-December 16, 2007, in front of Boston’s Faneuil Hall. It was Rand Paul who first conceived of a Tea Party Caucus in Congress while on the campaign trail in Kentucky. And it was Rand Paul who won CPAC’s 2013 straw poll. Here’s more evidence of a Rubio-Paul split: after Rubio delivered the Republican response to the 2013 State of the Union speech, Paul delivered the Tea Party response.
But Rand Paul isn’t the only potential candidate nipping at Rubio’s heels. Ted Cruz, Texas senator, reportedly has not ruled out a filibuster against Rubio’s immigration bill. Cruz, just elected in 2012, is a far shot for the presidency; however, his presence in the field of candidates would prevent the Tea Party’s internal conflict from being restricted to just Rubio and Paul. In other words, Cruz is the perfect spoiler.
Altogether, it looks like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have temporarily joined forces to oppose Rubio’s centrist shift. Cruz helped Paul during his nearly thirteen hour-long filibuster in March. This was payment for old debts. Paul had endorsed Cruz’s primary bid. However, when one of the two decides to discard the other, then the fighting really starts.
Paul vs. Rubio vs. Cruz: not exactly the best situation for the Tea Party, going forward. If it turns out that I am right, the Tea Party wing of the GOP will split its vote on two, maybe three candidates, and someone like Chris Christie or Bobby Jindal could make off with the nomination. At this point, the Republican ticket is the Tea Party’s to lose. And at this point, they just might.