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Following the 2012 elections, it was unclear how much momentum was left in the Tea Party movement, both nationally and in Minnesota. Political analysts blamed the conservative faction for several embarrassing Republican losses in high-profile campaigns, while overall public opinion seemed to have soured on the concept.

Tea Party looks to 2014 revival

Jeff Johnson


GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson has attended three Tea Party events since announcing his candidacy. “I think we’ll see Tea Party groups that are more active next year than they were in the last cycle,” he said. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

New groups are forming as top races take shape

Following the 2012 elections, it was unclear how much momentum was left in the Tea Party movement, both nationally and in Minnesota. Political analysts blamed the conservative faction for several embarrassing Republican losses in high-profile campaigns, while overall public opinion seemed to have soured on the concept. Nationwide exit polling found 21 percent of voters had a positive opinion of the Tea Party movement, about half of the 41 percent support found in 2010 exit polls.

Locally, a number of Tea Party-aligned politicians who helped the GOP take control of the Legislature in 2010 were defeated. Perhaps worst of all, U.S. Senate candidate Kurt Bills, who won the party endorsement thanks to organizing by Tea Party and pro-Ron Paul elements, won only 30 percent of the statewide vote in November.

But if the last few months are any indication, the party’s not over. Energized by watching a full legislative session of DFL control and continued inaction in the federal government, new branches of the Tea Party have been springing up throughout the metro area. From April through the end of this month, five new suburban Tea Party groups will have held inaugural events.

Already, some Republican candidates for statewide office have made campaign stops at the rallies, and Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, has some idea as to why. Republicans recall the 2012 convention, when Tea Party delegates flooded the state convention floor and ruled the day.

“I’ve been around the party endorsing caucus long enough to know that most of the delegates that were there two years ago are going to come back again,” Nienow said.

Jake Duesenberg, an organizer who has helped launch several of the new area Tea Party organizations, said Nienow’s theory is more or less correct.

“Boy,” Duesenberg said with a chuckle, “that almost sounds like our strategy.”

‘Fire in their bellies’

The Tea Party element of the GOP has won dozens of U.S. House seats in conservative districts, but it has a decidedly less impressive record when it comes to statewide races.

By nominating flawed or unknown candidates, Tea Party activists are thought to have cost the Republican Party winnable U.S. Senate seats in Delaware, Nevada and Connecticut in 2010, and again last year in Indiana, where Tea Party-backed candidate Richard Mourdock ousted moderate Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in a primary, but lost in the general election following controversial statements about rape and abortion.

Mourdock’s loss drew post-election criticism from Minnesota media figure and major GOP donor Stanley Hubbard, who told Politico the party needed to stop nominating “nutcases” for major office.

In Minnesota, Tea Party activists flexed their organizational muscle at the 2012 endorsing convention, elevating Bills, a one-term state legislator, from a relative unknown to the party endorsee in a matter of months. In hindsight, Nienow said, Bills’ poor showing against DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar can partly be blamed on a lack of follow-through from the Tea Party/Ron Paul element that handed Bills the endorsement.

“When it came down to doing the grunt work at election time, they didn’t really show up,” Nienow said. “Coming out of the convention, you had to think [Bills] had a built-in army.”

Duesenberg has a different perspective on Bills’ loss, saying a presidential election year draws a different contingent in Minnesota than in midterm elections. Duesenberg also thinks the Tea Party movement, by its very nature, is at its most active when it is out of power.

Following the 2013 session, in which Democratic majorities passed $2.1 billion in tax increases and “heavily went after guns,” Duesenberg senses a return of momentum for this election cycle.

“People have that fire in their bellies,” said Duesenberg, who described overflow crowds at the kick-off events for the newest Tea Party groups.

Duesenberg and Republican activist Jack Rogers have helped organize initial meetings for each of the five groups to launch since spring. Using money raised through their MN Tea Party PAC, they assembled something of a “starter kit,” which includes event materials to help get a new group off the ground.

The newest addition launched Tuesday night in Burnsville, where the Southeast Metro Tea Party hosted GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson. According to Johnson, it was his third appearance at a Tea Party event since filing his candidacy. Johnson said he tends to take any invitation to reach a conservative audience.

But Duesenberg pointed out that Johnson and Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, the two Republican gubernatorial candidates committed to abide by the party endorsement, both have made an effort to reach out to the Tea Party crowd.

“Jeff Johnson and Dave Thompson have shown absolutely no fear in coming to speak to our groups,” Duesenberg said. “That makes us believe that those two represent our viewpoints and our principles.”

As for the U.S. Senate race, Duesenberg said Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, was the first candidate to embrace the movement, with her Aug. 1 appearance at an East Metro Tea Party event in Lake Elmo.

Leslie Henschel, an organizer on hand for that event, said she was “favorably impressed” by Ortman’s speech that night, but had known little about her beforehand.

Even last year, though, Ortman failed to win party endorsement in her own legislative district and was forced to win a GOP primary election against a challenger who accused Ortman of failing to live up to conservative principles.

Duesenberg said he thinks that Ortman has “some support” among the activists he knows and that he was relatively positive about her candidacy compared with the “more liberal” Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and investment executive Mike McFadden, whom Duesenberg faulted for not appealing to the Tea Party or the state’s Republican base.

Given that field, committed conservatives might be interested in finding out if there’s anyone behind door No. 4.

“I know a lot of people in the Tea Party are looking for another candidate to get into that race,” Duesenberg said.

How pivotal a role?

Veteran GOP campaign consultant Gregg Peppin said that appearing at a Tea Party event can help establish a candidate’s credentials as a fiscal conservative, but he stopped short of saying the constituency would decide the Republican ticket.

“I think it’s too early to say that all paths to the endorsement run through the Tea Party,” Peppin said.

For his part, Duesenberg is confident that the Tea Party activists will play the largest role in making the party’s next endorsements.

“There’s no movement inside the Republican ranks that can counter the Tea Party,” he said. “We hope to have most of the delegates at the convention.”

One Tea Partier already lining up for that job is Janis Quinlan, a former Republican candidate for state Senate who has now taken on an organizing role with the Southeast Metro Tea Party.

Quinlan professed admiration for Tom Emmer in the Sixth Congressional District, but said she was still learning about the candidate fields in both of the statewide races. After choosing a pair of favorites, Quinlan said she plans to work to get each of her picks the party endorsement and a victory in a competitive primary, which seems an ever more likely scenario.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 62 percent of Republicans who identify as Tea Party supporters “always” vote in the primary, while only 45 percent of non-Tea Partiers made the same claim.

Henschel, who helped found the South Metro Tea Party, said she felt it was her duty to participate.

“[My husband and I] are very dedicated to being responsible Americans,” she said, “and that includes voting in primaries.”

Having recently attended Tea Party events, Jeff Johnson said he thinks that piece of the GOP has rebounded from the 2012 election losses and that it might have regained some of the vigor that once delivered Republican victories across the country and state.

“They’re energized again, probably a little more like 2010 than 2012,” Johnson said. “I think we’ll see Tea Party groups that are more active next year than they were in the last cycle.”

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