NASHVILLE, May 17 - When conservative Tea Party activists helped Republicans extend their majority in Tennessee’s legislature in 2010, they expected to get the legislation they wanted.
Many of these middle-class insurgents are disappointed.
State lawmakers have passed plenty of conservative legislation, especially socially conservative bills targeting abortion, tightening sexual abstinence rules so parents can sue school teachers for promoting “gateway sexual activity,” and providing protection for teachers who allow students to query “controversial” theories such as global warming and evolution.
While social conservatives have plenty to celebrate, fiscally and “constitutionally” conservative Tea Partiers have seen their own bills either dropped at the committee stage (concerning property and gun rights) or thwarted on the House floor (healthcare).
“You think we’d be able to pass anything we want to in Tennessee,” said Richard Archie of Tennesseans for Liberty, a group in western Tennessee. “It hasn’t worked out that way.”
Many in the movement believe the solution is to push the Republican Party further to the right by electing more fiscal conservatives. Others warn that by going after moderate Republicans it risks marginalization and the prospect of achieving even less in the future.
In 2010, Republicans wooed the Tea Party movement, promising them lower taxes and constitutionally limited government - where real power would devolve to the states and the federal government would be restricted to areas like national defense.
In return, Tea Party activists helped Republicans expand majorities in red states like Tennessee and take the U.S. House of Representatives and 20 state legislative chambers around the country.
These Republican majorities have pushed voter identification and anti-abortion bills, or followed Wisconsin’s lead in curtailing public sector workers’ collective bargaining rights.
Still, Tea Partiers complain Republicans in Washington and Tennessee alike talk conservative but act moderate, straining the alliance in many states ahead of the November presidential and congressional elections.
“The Republicans are reaping what they sowed,” said Jim Kyle, Tennessee’s Democratic state senate minority leader. “They are scared to death of Tea Party folks.”
Perhaps with good reason. Like some of their counterparts in other U.S. states, many Tennessee Tea Partiers are backing primary challenges this year against Republicans they deem too moderate, dubbed RINOs (Republican In Name Only), from state representatives to U.S. Senator Bob Corker.
“Long term, we want to make Tennessee a truly red state,” said Katherine Hudgins, a member of the 9.12 Project Tennessee in Rutherford County. The project was started by conservative television and radio commentator Glenn Beck, and its groups are part of the amorphous national collection of local movements that make up the Tea Party.
The frustration cuts both ways, with a number of Republican lawmakers feeling some Tea Party activists have been too aggressive with them.
“The Tea Party has made the difference for us,” said Republican State Representative Joe Carr, who works closely with some of the groups. “But I’ll have nothing to do with folks who come here full of aggression and vitriol.”
While many in the Tea Party believe a RINO hunt is the answer to what they see as Republican timidity, others warn the insurgency may harm its own interests.
Tennessee is not like Indiana, where the recent trouncing of six-term veteran Republican U.S. Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana by a Tea Party-backed rival gives Democrats a glimmer of hope they can win the seat in November, picking up votes from disaffected Republicans. The danger in this red state, some conservatives say, is that the Tea Party will alienate moderate Republican and independent voters, diminishing its influence.
”In some cases Tea Party activists here are going after lawmakers for one or two votes they disagree with,“ said Ken Marrero, who runs the conservative blog Blue Collar Muse in Nashville. ”But going after someone who is with you 80 percent of the time is a foolish and short-sighted strategy.
“The Tea Party could be opening the door for people not to take us seriously.”
Some Republicans have expressed similar concerns at the national level over Tea Party intransigence over America’s fiscal crisis, most notably in their steadfast refusal to raise the U.S. debt limit.
Tennessee was already fiscally conservative before the Tea Party. The Washington-based Tax Foundation, which favors lower taxes, says for three decades Tennessee’s state and local tax burden has been “one of the nation’s lowest.”
Vanderbilt University polls show 14 percent of Tennesseans say they are Tea Party members and 40 percent share the movement’s ideals.
Tennessee Tea Parties vocally supported some Republican bills passed since early 2011. These included one aimed at halting “material support” for terrorists, which many Tea Partiers saw as vital to prevent Islamic law from coming to Tennessee. Some groups see plans for construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, southeast of Nashville, as a sign that Sharia is spreading here.
The bill’s language was toned down following an outcry from civil liberties groups and others alleging it amounted to persecuting a minority. Muslims form an estimated 1 percent of Tennessee’s population, and groups representing them say the fear that Islamic law will be applied in the state is a fanciful projection of the extreme right.
Tea Partiers also supported a bill curtailing collective bargaining rights for teachers.
Their own attempts to pass bills have been less successful, even for groups that have embraced the legislative process. One such group lobbied hard for a Health Care Compact bill, written by the Health Care Compact Alliance and embraced by many Tea Party activists. Last fall the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council termed it “model” legislation.
Approved in six states so far, the compact is touted nationally as a conservative alternative to President Barack Obama’s health reform. Individual U.S. states would control healthcare spending, though many Tea Party groups oppose any government control of healthcare. To work, the compact needs U.S. congressional approval.
Michael Barnhart of the Health Care Compact Alliance says without grassroots conservative support, the bill generally does not fare well.
Despite more than a year of intense Tea Party lobbying, the compact failed in Tennessee because many Republican state representatives present simply did not vote on it. Although a majority of votes cast were in favor, it fell short of a required absolute majority in the House.
“We’ll try again next year,” said Kurt Potter, an amateur Tea Party lobbyist involved in the effort.
“WORSE THAN DYSENTERY”
Other Tea Party-driven bills have run into opposition from interested parties.
Municipalities in Tennessee killed a property rights bill intended to undermine implementation of a United Nations sustainable development program that would mean grants for cities. American conservatives despise so-called Agenda 21, believing it will destroy their home values and dictate where they live. And big employers killed a state law that would allow Tennesseans to keep guns in their cars parked at work.
These failures have encouraged many Tennessean Tea Parties to support fresh primary challenges against incumbent Republicans.
Lee Douglas, a Tea Party leader, is backing a challenger to Republican State Representative Charles Sargent because he failed to show “urgency on the dangers we face,” in particular the scale of America’s fiscal mess.
Sargent did not respond to calls for comment.
Others back a long-shot challenge to Republican Senator Corker, dubbed “Bailout Bob” for supporting the 2008 bank bailout, by Zach Poskevich, a relative unknown. As of March 31, Corker had $8 million in his campaign war chest; Poskevich had $13,000.
“Is it possible (Poskevich) can win? Yes,” said David Nance of the Tennessee 8th District Tea Party Coalition. “Is it likely? No.”
If Poskevich fails, Tea Party groups say they will back him in 2014 against Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who raised taxes three times as governor in the 1980s.
“Lamar Alexander is the worst thing since dysentery,” Tennesseans for Liberty’s Archie said.
Spokesmen for Corker and Alexander defended their records as conservatives.
They have recently risen in the rankings of the conservative Club for Growth, which evaluates Congress based on conservative votes, but the Club for Growth’s spokesman, Barney Keller, still described them as “liberal, big-government Republicans.”
Nashville blogger Marrero worries about a challenge to Corker, because if it fails it will make the Tea Party look weak.
“I‘m not willing to throw Bob Corker under the bus because of a few votes I don’t like,” he said. “But if you’re going to challenge him, it has to be real to be credible.”
“If you’re going to shoot at the king,” he added, “you better be sure to kill him.”
Editing by Claudia Parsons and Prudence Crowther