Strong on momentum, but shy of real power, TEA Party’s political weight remains to be seen
“I didn’t have nobody that shared the same views as me until the TEA Party came along,” said Cummings, 45, a childcare worker in Franklin.
A recent WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll of registered voters in Jackson County shows a nearly even split of how people view the TEA Party: 42 percent reported a favorable opinion of the TEA Party versus 40 percent unfavorable.
“We have a very polarized country right now,” said Gibbs Knotts, a WCU political science professor who developed the poll.
The highly accurate poll was conducted among 600 or so registered voters in Jackson County last month, gauging views toward government at the local, state and national level. The TEA Party incidentally has a higher approval rating the federal government, according to the poll.
“Love the TEA Party or hate the TEA Party, they are an important movement in American politics,” said Chris Cooper, another political science professor at WCU who developed the poll. Cooper said the TEA Party — and in particular whether it will leave a lasting mark — is not yet well-understood by political analysts like himself.
To Gail Chapman, however, the TEA Party has given her life newfound meaning. She described her first brush with the TEA Party during a march in D.C. as the “best day of my life.”
“To be with so many people who felt the way I felt, who believe in getting back to our core conservative values,” said Chapman, 65, a retired high school teacher in Franklin. “I think it is important that we, the silent majority, stand up and speak out.”
The TEA Party can’t yet claim a majority — at least among registered voters polled in Jackson County. But the movement definitely has a higher approval rating in the mountains than among the nation as a whole. In a national New York Times poll, only 18 percent said they were supporters of the TEA Party.
Cooper has a theory why more than twice as high a percentage of people here are TEA Party sympathizers — one that goes back to the Scotch-Irish roots of the Appalachian settlers.
“Western North Carolinians have a streak of independence historically and culturally,” Cooper said. “There is a strong distrust of the federal government here in particular.”
TEA Party supporters believe they would have even higher favorable numbers if not for the leftist media casting them in a negative light.
“We are not radical. We are not crazy. We are not right-wing nut jobs,” Chapman said.
She is doing her part to change perceptions. She wears her TEA party button everywhere she goes and uses it to start conversations with other people in line around her at the grocery store.
Bruce Gardner, a TEA Party activist in Haywood County, said more people would support the movement if they understood it.
“I fail to believe that 40 percent of the people are in favor of higher taxes and bigger deficits,” said Gardner.
Knotts agrees the TEA Party has caught some bad publicity and has been negatively portrayed as anti-establishment. He was impressed with how well the TEA Party polled locally, given the strikes against them in the media.
Beverly Elliot, a member of the TEA Party in Waynesville, said the movement has been pigeonholed by the national media.
“It is easier to marginalize someone if you can stick them in one camp or the other and say they are just a shill for this party or the other rather than being free thinkers,” Elliot said. “If people only get their news from 90-second sound bites, they are gong to believe hook line and sinker what the TEA Party is about.”
One of the labels — that the TEA Party is merely Republicans in disguise — should come as no surprise, however. Speakers at the TEA Party rally in Franklin, as with most TEA Party rallies, were all Republicans. Their talking points read like a conservative anthem. And signs in the crowd decried President Obama.
“The TEA Party claims to have dissatisfaction with both parties, but clearly Republican or conservative leaning folks are more likely to support the TEA Party,” Cooper said.
The PPI/Smoky Mountain News poll backs that conclusion with hard data. TEA Party sympathizers were far more likely to be Republican and more likely to view themselves as conservative, as opposed to moderate or liberal.
TEA Party activists admit to being conservative more readily than being Republican. A flyer for a weekly TEA Party meeting in Haywood County implores those attending to “leave your political party at the door.” Yet when the same group formed a political action committee, its stated purpose, according to the paperwork filed with the N.C. Board of Elections, is “to support candidates with conservative values.”
While TEA Party members rail against illegal immigrants and lament the loss of Christian influence in government, their universal rallying cry is to cut spending.
“If people care about this country and don’t want to leave this country with an unsustainable debt, they need to get off their sofas,” said Elliot.
The deficit is cause for real fear among TEA Party activists — the equivalent of global warming for their liberal counterparts. Gardner said the country is headed toward “financial ruin.”
“We are going to be dominated financially and probably militarily by foreign powers,” Gardner said. “We cannot afford to continue on the road we are on. I am not even sure if it is reversible.”
Exactly where the TEA Party movement will go from here is unclear — or even how to define it. Don Swanson of Franklin, who helped organize last week’s rally, summed up the TEA Party as a “philosophical movement.”
The TEA Party prides itself on its grassroots nature. There is no national headquarters and no national spokesperson. But that could prove limiting, relegating the TEA Party to influence policy around the margins rather than becoming a real player.
Knotts said American politics is entrenched in a two-party system where the winner takes all. He thinks it unlikely that a third party could become a viable player.
TEA Party members likewise doubt they will ever be a bona fide third party.
“I think the end game is to influence the two major parties, to move them more center-right,” Gardener said.
Indeed, both sides of the aisle are furiously pounding their fists over the out-of-control deficit. It’s now rated as the number one concern in national polls, and politicians can’t avoid the topic as they move toward the November election.
“This message that government spending is out of control, that is going to be popular,” Knotts said.
While some TEA Partiers may be happy to simply move the political dial their direction, ultimately they would like to see their handpicked candidates get into office.
While it’s not the same as recruiting a candidate and seeing them to the finish line, the TEA Party is poised to endorse local candidates in the November election after forming a political action committee, allowing them to legally accept donations and spend money on political campaigns.
The TEA Party will look for candidates most in line with their thinking.
“Not necessarily because it is a mirror image of what we support,” Elliot said.
Gardener said fiscally conservative candidates considering a run have been swayed to jump in the ring after witnessing what he calls a “groundswell of support for conservative thinking.” The TEA Party has a sphere of influence in Haywood County that reaches 1,800 people through an email list. Not bad, considering “we started with six a year ago in March,” Gardner said.
Cooper cautioned that the TEA Party could actually backfire and motivate Democrats to turn out in bigger numbers at the polls in hopes of countering the conservative movement.
“Campaigns are either won by getting people to change sides or by mobilizing your base. I think this will be mobilizing your base,” Cooper said. “Historically, that’s what movement like this do. It is really hard to get people to switch their vote.”
Allen Demas, a founding member of the local TEA Party group in Franklin, is a case in point.
“This is the first time I have ever been politically active,” said Demas, 61, a retired store manager of Winn Dixie in Franklin.
However, he’s always voted — and always voted Republican. Come Election Day, his new-found activism with the TEA Party will mean little to conservative candidates. They’ll have Demas’ vote this year, just like they did every other year when he merely showed up at the polls as a lone voter without the weight of a movement behind him.
But it feels good to be part of something, rather than sitting home watching the news and fuming, Cummings said.
“It’s the first time people are coming together as a group,” Cummings said.
But he realizes the party doesn’t end here.
“If we don’t take our views to the polls and show them, it’s not going to work,” Cummings said. “Until we do that, we’re just holding signs.”
Poll results say …
• 42 percent have a favorable opinion of the TEA Party versus 40 percent unfavorable and 18 percent undecided.
• 82 percent of Republicans have a favorable opinion of the TEA Party versus only 29 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents
• Among TEA Party sympathizers, 95 percent have an unfavorable view of the federal government. Among all respondents, 62 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the federal government.
Local TEA Party groups
• A TEA Party group meets in Franklin at 2 p.m. on the third Saturday of the month at the 441 Diner in Otto. Mountainpatriotsteaparty.info
• A TEA Party group meets in Waynesville at 9 a.m. every Saturday at Nico’s café downtown.
• A political action committee to support TEA Party candidates locally has just been formed. The website is under construction but should be online soon. Teapartywnc.com.