A new poll finds fewer Americans support the Tea Party movement and the noticeable dip among Republican voters could impact Kentucky’s U.S. Senate GOP primary race.
According to a Gallup survey conducted earlier this month, opponents of the Tea Party outnumber supporters by a 27 percent to 22 percent.
Most are indifferent to the movement, but the poll shows the Tea Party’s favorable rating among GOP voters is 38 percent compared to 65 percent in 2010.
Those numbers could put a damper on Louisville businessman Matt Bevin’s primary hopes as he seeks to overthrow incumbent Mitch McConnell with heavy Tea Party support in the state.
Observers say the low approval numbers are a sign the Tea Party is being blamed for the gridlock in Washington in the face of a possible government shutdown.
“It’s so much easier to rail against the establishment, people like that when you show enthusiasm and energy,” says University of Louisville political science professor Dewey Clayton. “But once you become the establishment and you actually have to govern things change somewhat. One of the reasons the Tea Party is falling out of favor with many Americans is because people are seeing them as part of problem in Washington now.”
Clayton says it’s hard to compare Bevin’s 2014 bid to Rand Paul’s insurgency GOP primary candidacy for a number of reasons, but says the Tea Party doesn’t appear to have the same strength it did in 2010.
Tea Party leaders in the state, however, argue despite those national figures the movement in Kentucky is stronger compared to three years ago.
As far as the 27 point dip among self-identified Republicans, that drop off is a by-product of the movement’s independence.
“A lot of folks in the Republican Party thought the Tea Party was an extension of them and they found out we’re not a rubber stamp,” says Scott Hofstrat, spokesman for United Kentucky Tea Party, which has endorsed Bevin over McConnell. “We have folks in our tea parties who are Democrats, Republicans and independents who are united around common goals related to the economy and the size of government. In a lot of ways we have parted ways with the Republican Party, and we don’t always agree with them.”
Hofstra points out that after Paul’s upset victory over the Kentucky GOP establishment in 2010, activists helped elect Thomas Massie to Congress last year.
But McConnell has made maneuvers since his political protégé lost to Paul, forging an alliance with his junior senator unlike other incumbents.
“As far it concerns Sen. McConnell’s re-election bid, clearly the fact Sen. Paul is still supporting McConnell that tends to blunt some of that Tea Party attack and criticism of McConnell,” says Clayton, adding Paul’s national profile has in many ways transcended the movement.
The Tea Party’s poor approval numbers among Republicans may also reflect a bit political regret.
The movement gave the GOP base energy, but top conservatives have publicly blamed the movement for the party’s failure to regain the majority in the U.S. Senate last year. It’s a fact McConnell supporters are quick to remind constituents about.
“Everybody knows that in four to six states over the last two cycles the weaker candidate was nominated in the primary and cost us seats we could have won in the general,” says Republican state Sen. Damon Thayer, who represents parts of northern Kentucky and endorsed McConnell for re-election.
“And I think some of those candidates maybe not because of their core beliefs, but more so they were just poor candidates who couldn’t raise money, they weren’t good campaigners and made mistakes on the trail that opened up opportunities for the Democrat. Everybody knows we should be in the majority right now if other candidates had won those primaries.”
Thayer says conservative grassroots activists are forgetting primaries are about putting the best general election candidate forward rather that ideological purity tests. In the case of Kentucky’s Senate primary race that is McConnell, he says.
But the Bevin camp reminds those same voters poll number show McConnell is either tied or trailing Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes in a head-to-head contest.
Gallup says while rank-and-file Republicans are “more likely to call themselves supporters than opponents of the Tea Party movement” 55 percent are identified as having no opinion.
That may explain why Bevin has made it clear in several interviews that he isn’t a Tea Party candidate in the race while accepting the Kentucky movement’s endorsement.
He has certainly been branded as the GOP leader’s “Tea Party challenger” in national coverage.
“I’ve never been a member of a Tea Party,” Bevin told MSNBC. “I never went to any Tea Party meetings, although I am fiscally very much in like mind.”
Even Bevin’s base of supporters admit he must expand that base in order to have any chance at defeating a political juggernaut such as McConnell.
“Matt has welcomed the Tea Party support and we’re very happy to support him,” says Hofstra.”But I think Matt is running on a broader base. He’s trying to appeal to all Republicans and all conservatives. I think he’s trying to avoid being pigeonholed as Tea Party.”
Correction: This story has been updated to note the correct photographer who took the main photo.