The Club for Growth and the Tea Party

Erick Erickson’s article regarding the study conducted by the Club for Growth and the Tea Party needs a little more explanation than can be handled in a response in the “comments” section of that article. In a way, it is a little misleading to a certain degree. But first, we have to go back to 2010 and look at the strength of the Tea Party not through rose-colored glasses, but actual election results. In that year, the Tea Party backed some 129 House candidates for election. Of those candidates, they had a winning percentage of only 32.6%. Put another way, the Tea Party LOST 67.4% of the races with candidates they openly supported. Furthermore, of those victories, 19 of them were in races deemed by most political experts to be solid and/or leaning Republican districts. Hence, half of the Tea Party endorsed winners were no-brainers. In toss-up races, they did manage to win 65% of those races, but in a wave election year, chances are a Republican whether backed by the Tea Party or not would have won. Thrown together, Tea Party candidates won in 34 of 42 races that were in toss up or Republican districts. Conversely, the bulk of the candidates ran in Democratic districts- 87 in all. Here, only 8 Tea Party backed candidates prevailed (and none in solid Democratic districts). Therefore, the “impact” of the Tea Party was not exceptional in the overall electoral sense, but within solid GOP territory.

Secondly, the Tea Party candidates were more effective based upon geography with a greater than 50% success rate in the south and midwest. For example, ten candidates in New England were endorsed by the Tea Party with only one prevailing (in New Hampshire). In the west, only one of 24 Tea Party endorsed candidates won.

Besides the geographical differences, I also looked at the partisanship of the districts where Republican freshmen hailed from (based on Cook PVI) and compared this against the Club for Growth rating of the person. Obviously, if they came from a Democratic district, their average Club for Growth rating was the lowest. Meanwhile, their rating was the highest in strong Republican districts. That is just for the 41 Tea Party endorsed people. The same tendency was seen among the remaining 46 freshmen without Tea Party endorsement. This indicates that in Democratic districts represented by Republican freshmen, they tow the Tea Party/Club for Growth line to a lesser extent than they would in a strong Republican district. And, in a way, that is how it is supposed to be. A representative represents the people in his district; they do not represent the Tea Party or the Club for Growth.

The Club for Growth website that Erickson’s article links to states: “In the 2010 election, 87 freshmen House Republicans came to Washington pledging fealty to the Tea Party movement and the ideals of limited government and economic freedom.” However, a research of the literature and endorsements from 2010 show that only 41 of those 87 House freshmen received endorsements from the Tea Party movement. Those endorsements were expressed through winning state or county straw polls, endorsements by vocal and/or national Tea Party personalities, or special interest aid. To state that all freshmen Republicans were “Tea Party” is somewhat disingenuous. The other 46 freshmen may have expressed some ideals of the Tea Party- “limited government and economic freedom-” but, aren’t they the supposed ideals of the Republican Party in general? To the best of my knowledge, not too many- if any- Republican ran in 2010 on an agenda that mirrored expansive government and economic tyranny.

Overall, the 41 actual Tea Party freshmen had a slightly higher rating from the Club for Growth than the 46 without endorsements- 72.4% average to 67.5%. That is not a great statistical difference. Just looking at the freshmen based on geography, the non-Tea Party endorsed person had a higher Club for Growth rating in the south, southwest and middle Atlantic state than freshmen from those areas with Tea Party endorsement. Hence, when push came to shove as far as votes go versus Tea Party rhetoric or endorsement, the non-endorsed group actually demonstrated greater fiscal conservatism in the overall sense.

Among those categories listed by the Club for Growth that determined their ratings, there was 100% agreement in both groups in the following categories: repeal of Obamacare, disallowing the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, opposition to speech regulations, Congressional approval for regulations, and opposition to a 3.6% surtax. The Tea Party endorsed group was additionally 100% united in the following areas besides those listed: allowing more oil and gas leasing, opposition to Internet regulations, and both the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements. Conversely, there was 100% agreement among the non-Tea Party endorsed group regarding approval of the DC voucher program. In only six areas was there a disagreement between the groups of more than 15%: continuation of energy subsidies, rolling back spending to 2006 levels, a continuing appropriations bill, cuts to agricultural subsidies, the omnibus spending bill, and raising the debt limit. Energy and agricultural subsidies were likely a function of practicality in that those who stood opposite the Club for Growth’s position hailed from agricultural or energy producing states/districts.

Playing the role of teacher with a class of 87 students with the Club for Growth’s agenda being the test, we would find the following:
Grade Tea Party Non-Tea party Total
A (91-100) 12 (29%) 3 (7%) 15 (17%)
B (81-90) 3 (7%) 8 (17%) 11 (13%)
C (71-80) 6 (15%) 9 (20%) 15 (17%)
D (61-70) 5 (12%) 8 (17%) 13 (15%)
F (less 60) 15 (37%) 18(39%) 33 (38%)
In short, only 51% of the actual Tea Party endorsed Republican freshmen would get a “C” or higher while 47% of the non-Tea Party-endorsed Republican freshman would get a “C” or higher.

To claim that the 112th Congress is not “Tea Party” as concerns Republican freshmen only confirms that not all Tea Party backed candidates in 2010 were elected in the first place. Furthermore, we can argue all we want about the relative importance of the issues the Club for Growth uses as its criteria for assigning ratings. To some, repeal of Obamacare takes on greater weight than subsidies for Amtrak or funding for the Botanical Garden. Among the Tea Party freshman, they averaged less than 50% agreement in a few areas: continuing appropriations, ending federal subsidies for flood insurance, and raising the debt limit as well as rolling back spending to 2006 levels. Among the non-Tea Party endorsed GOP freshmen, they fell below the 50% threshold in those areas plus the following: ending energy subsidies, cuts to agricultural subsidies, opposition to new flood insurance programs, cutting water and energy spending, appropriations for five federal departments, and the omnibus spending bill.

All in all, it is not a utopian conservative Congress- Tea Party or no Tea Party. Leaving aside Tea Party endorsements or lack of them, we can see that in many areas there is agreement between the two groups of Republican freshmen. In areas where they actually could put their money (actually your money and my money) where their mouths were in 2010, in 7 of 13 categories their votes came through an average of 60% or greater. The others remain stubborn sticking points based on (1) geographical differences or (2) political reality. For example, it is doubtful that midwestern representatives will support ending or even decreasing agricultural subsidies (geography). Likewise, there seems to be a fairly reliable consensus that federal flood insurance is here to stay, but that it should not be expanded (political reality). The same is true of raising the debt limit. Here, only 29 of 87 freshmen Republicans voted against raising the limit meaning that 58, when confronted with the very real possibility of a credit rating downgrade (at the end of the day, a political/psychological consideration), voted to raise the limit.

Obviously, there is a disconnect between electioneering rhetoric and actual legislating. Sometimes, votes are dictated not by conscience or principle, but by political realities. Often, a “yes” or “no” vote is nuanced by particulars in the legislation that special interest groups, like the Club for Growth, often overlook or simply dismiss. To many, there is black and white and many ignore the shades of gray between. In 2010, there was great hope that with invigoration from the Tea Party, a more conservative stand with respect to fiscal issues would be made in Congress, particularly the House. But, 2010 was only a start in my view. It is important and incumbent upon all of us to better educate ourselves with the issues of the day, to accept compromise where compromise is indicated (half of something is better than nothing, although I, like many, prefer to have the whole), to elect those Republicans who are closest to our political views into office, and then to hold them accountable and vote them out if they fail in that task.