History of the Tea Party Movement

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

New Political Movement Quickly Found Loyal Following

by Beth Rowen
Tea Party Protest

One of several Tea Party protests

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Since its inception in February 2009, the Tea Party movement—with the help of viral videos and social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter—found a large and loyal following that quickly gained traction and supporters. However, the movement's electoral success in 2010 did not carry over to the 2012 or 2014 elections. In fact, by the 2014 elections, the consensus among many Republicans was that the Tea Party was too radical and was costing the GOP votes and seats in Congress.

A Televised Birth of a Movement

CNBC's Rick Santelli is widely credited with launching the grassroots movement. While standing on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on February 19, 2009, he unleashed what can only be called a rant against the Obama Administration's proposal to help homeowners facing foreclosure refinance their mortgages.

"Do we really want to subsidize the losers' mortgages?" he asked. "This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?" He went on to suggest that he would organize a Chicago Tea Party in July, where capitalists would dump "some derivative securities into Lake Michigan." The video of his tirade became a YouTube hit, and the movement was born. Within weeks, Tea Party protests were sprouting up all over the country. The Tea Party name, a clear reference to the American colonists' dumping of tea into Boston Harbor to protest taxes imposed by King George, stands as an acronym as well: Taxed Enough Already.

Santelli, however, can't claim credit as the sole mastermind of the movement. Prior to his appearance in Chicago, Keli Carender, a Seattle at-home mother also known as Liberty Belle, had been using her blog to get the word out about the populist "Porkulus Protest" she was organizing against President Barack Obama's proposed $750 billion stimulus package. About 100 people showed up for her event in mid-February. Similar events inspired by both Santelli and Carender, followed in quick succession in Denver; Mesa, Ariz.; Tampa, Fla.; and other cities. Tea Party organizers claim that the first nationwide Tea Party protest took place on February 27, 2009, with coordinated events occurring in more than 40 cities.

Small Protests Gather Steam

These protests were merely dress rehearsal for the Tea Party events planned for April 15, 2009: tax day. Few can agree on the number of events held throughout the country; the number ranges from 200 to 750, with total attendance ranging from about 250,000 to more than a half-million. Some protests, such as the one in Atlanta, Georgia, attracted crowds of several thousand; others drew just a handful. A protest outside the White House was broken up by police when a demonstrator threw a box of tea bags over the fence.

Protests against the stimulus package, the bank bailouts, and health-care legislation continued throughout 2009, with major events held on July 4 and September 12. During the summer, Tea Party protesters were criticized for their disruptive outbursts during meetings held by members of Congress in their home districts to discuss health-care reform.

Diverse Group with a Unified Message

Tea Partiers detest all things big: big government, big business, big national debt, big taxes. They express hostility toward the elite and outrage that the government has come to the aid of Wall Street while ignoring the plight of Main Street. Most Tea Partiers consider themselves citizen activists who are part of a grassroots movement that is organized from the bottom up—small groups united under a shared ideology. The movement claims no national leader or figurehead. Some say that Sarah Palin assumed the role as #1 Tea Partier when she delivered the keynote address at the first Tea Party Convention in February 2010 in Nashville. Some 600 people attended the full convention, and another 500 sat in on Palin's speech only.

"America is ready for another revolution," she said. In a barb pointed at President Barack Obama, she said the movement is "about the people, and it's bigger than any one king or queen of a tea party, and it's a lot bigger than any charismatic guy with a teleprompter."

Growing Pains

Some members of the movement accused Tea Party Nation, the group that organized the convention, of attempting to profit from the event: tickets cost $549 to attend, and Palin received a reported $100,000 speaker's fee (which Palin said "will go right back to the cause"). Several sponsors and speakers backed out of commitments in the days and weeks leading up to the event. Representatives Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) were among the speakers to cancel their appearances.

While the Tea Party movement claims to be a grassroots movement, FreedomWorks, a powerful conservative organization headed by former congressman Dick Armey, seems to play an important role behind the scenes and serves as a clearinghouse for information on protests. Call it the right's answer to MoveON.org.

Mixed Electoral Results

While Democrats are usually the target of Tea Partiers' ire, Republicans have not always been spared. In New York, many members of the movement endorsed third-party candidate Doug Hoffman in the 2009 special election for the House seat vacated by John McHugh, over the moderate Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, pro-choice and a backer of gay marriage. Their plan backfired: Scozzafava withdrew from the race, and Democrat Bill Owens went on to win the election, albeit narrowly.

The ranks of Tea Party members grew in Congress throughout 2010. The movement's first major victory of the year occurred in January in Massachusetts—perhaps the bluest of the blue states—when Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in the Senate race to fill the seat vacated after the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy. Brown somewhat distanced himself from the Tea Party during the race, but as he positioned himself as an outsider who would vote to block a vote on health-care reform, the movement claimed him as one of their own. In July Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) got the go-ahead from the House leadership to form a Tea Party Caucus. Twenty-eight Republicans joined the group. In November's midterm elections, voters elected Kentucky's Rand Paul and Florida's Marco Rubio to the Senate. Exit polls on election day indicated that four out of ten voters have a favorable opinion of the party.

Voters, however, rejected some high-profile Tea Party candidates. Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, a conservative—and controversial—social activist who upset highly regarded political veteran Rep. Mike Castle in the September primary, was defeated in the general election by Democrat Christopher Coons. Sharron Angle, another controversial Tea Partier, lost her bid to unseat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada.

Tea Party candidates fared poorly in the 2012 election. Only four of 16 Senate candidates favored by the party were elected, and Representatives Allen West (R-FL) and Joe Walsh (R-IL), who were elected in 2010, were defeated. Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann narrowly beat Democrat Jim Graves. However, despite the dwindling number of members of Congress from the Tea Party, many observers credit the party and its supporters for pressuring Speaker John Boehner to refuse to back down on defunding Obamacare during the budget showdown in late September 2013 that resulted in a partial government shutdown. The Republicans' approval rating plummeted after the shutdown, and many began to think twice about backing the Tea Party.

Is the Party Over?

By the 2014 midterm elections, several prominent Republicans had grown wary of the Tea Party's divisive, ideological agenda. The Chamber of Commerce poured about $7 million into the campaigns of establishment candidates. In Mississippi, the National Republican Senatorial Committee campaigned against the Tea Party's Chris McDaniel, who was challenging Sen. Thad Cochran. The stratgey worked; not a single Tea Party candidate made it past the primary elections.

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