If you took a poll asking just one question: “Is it better for a politician to have their campaign financed by outside parties, or for him/her to be completely independent financially?” it wouldn’t even be close. Everyone thinks they want a candidate with no strings. But today we’re witnessing a campaign that’s as close as we’ve ever seen to a contender with no monetary leash on him – and his dogfights are tearing the GOP apart, particularly the grass-roots Tea Party that many Republicans hoped would galvanize a new generation of conservatives.
The Tea Party, a coalition of (initially at least) grassroots conservative firebrands, got its start in the Recession-ravaged first months of 2009, protesting bank bailouts and resisting calls for assistance to distressed homeowners. But it wasn’t until the Affordable Care Act that they finally coalesced into a coherent political force within the Republican Party. It was the fervor of that movement that swept candidates like Ted Cruz into the Senate and gave representatives like Michele Bachmann renewed prominence and purpose in the House.
Stung by President Obama’s reelection in 2012, the movement has lost some effectiveness, though it was still strong enough to hand the Republicans decisive victories in down-ticket races in 2014. Since then the Tea Party’s cohesiveness has started to suffer, as members split on the effectiveness of Republicans in delivering on their promises to reduce spending and shrink the size of government, as well as each group’s degree of affiliation with the mainline GOP.
So, with a GOP and a Tea Party already divided, Donald Trump walked onto the stage and the cracks in Republican unity became battlefields.
Warring with Each Other and Trump
At the heart of the fracture are divisions between moderate Republicans and conservatives and between so-called elites and a working class that sees job after well-paying job disappear after being assured the Republican Party cares about their concerns.
As Donald Trump blasted onto the scene and in short order became the GOP frontrunner, conservative purists doubted his commitment to slashing spending on Social Security and Medicare. Tea Party purists found his opposition to free trade troubling.
But thousands of others, including Tea Party supporters, found Trump’s confrontational, take-no-prisoners campaigning style invigorating and even empowering. For many, their support of Trump is their way of hitting back at both the Republican establishment and conservative policymakers they feel have abandoned them.
In both fans and critics, Trump inspires passion. But now that fervor is tearing apart the strongest conservative populist movement in a generation.
Fractures or Fault Lines?
The cracks started becoming more apparent in February when the Tea Party for America co-founder shifted his support from Trump to Jeb Bush, just before Bush suspended his campaign. The division pointed out that the Tea Party is an uneasy alignment of conservative think tanks funded by billionaires like the Koch brothers, big business Republicans and angry, largely white voters—who all seemed to realize at the same time that they have very little in common. Freedom Works, funded by the Koch brothers is not always aligned with the goals and objectives of Tea Party for America.
Let’s Use Our Indoor Voices
Many old-school Republicans are appalled by Trump’s aggressive style and intemperate pronouncements, both for the content and the damage it does to their “big tent” strategy, aimed at attracting a more diverse base. Even Trump supporters at times find his rhetoric on the campaign trail difficult to take, with many wishing he’d tone it down a notch. The violence and thinly-veiled racist overtones at some campaign events have left many wondering if they can support Trump and be part of that movement.
The Real Tea Party Candidate – Trump or Cruz?
While Trump remains the frontrunner, the candidate with the second highest number of delegates, Ted Cruz, is a longtime Tea Party favorite and hardly a darling of the GOP establishment. Most of the big money players were behind Rubio, and now may shift their focus to down-ticket races for Congress, Senate and state governors, rather than risk alienating base voters by picking sides in a divisive presidential primary.
Though Cruz and Trump initially seemed to give each other a wide berth, even teaming up to oppose the Iran nuclear deal, as Trump oddly claimed, “It is a bit of a romance. I like him, he likes me," the gloves have now come off – big-time.
Last week an anti-Trump super PAC launched a campaign aimed at Mormon voters that, in part, used provocative pictures of Trump’s wife Melania shot during her modeling days, and urged voters to support Cruz. Trump went ballistic, blasting Cruz directly and threatening to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife Heidi, an investment manager at Goldman Sachs. Meanwhile Cruz seized on yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels to attack Trump, linking the candidate’s pronouncements on NATO to the deadly acts of violence.
"’It is striking that the day after Donald Trump called for weakening NATO, withdrawing from NATO, we see Brussels, where NATO is headquartered, the subject of a radical Islamic terror attack,’ Cruz said Tuesday in a news conference hours after terrorists struck civilian targets in Brussels…”
Clearly, the romance is over. The only clarity in the primary race so far is the conclusion that none of this bodes well for the GOP. We’re on the path to a contentious, divided and possibly chaotic convention, one from which it’s hard to see a consensus candidate for the White House arising.