The "tea party" is back and is brewing trouble for the Republican establishment.
After the GOP debacle in the 2012 election, when Republicans not only failed to win the presidency but blew a chance to take over the Senate, party leaders paused to consider what had gone wrong.
The Republican National Committee issued a scathing report warning that the party was in "an ideological cul-de-sac" and resolved to act friendlier toward women, minorities and low-income voters. Strategist Karl Rove said the lesson was to nominate more moderate candidates, and he set about raising money to do just that.
But tea party leaders, undaunted, drew the opposite conclusion.
"It was not conservatives" who lost those Senate races, 19 of them wrote in a joint attack against Rove's efforts. "Not one moderate challenger won." The solution, they argued, was to swing further right, not toward the center.
The tea party is as fired up as ever, though the movement is smaller than in its heyday of 2010. Only 22 percent of voters now say they consider themselves tea party supporters, down from 30 percent three years ago.
But the grass-roots small-government movement has proved remarkably resilient. Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol says more than 350 tea party organizations are still operating; that's roughly two-thirds of the number that sprang up in 2009 and 2010. And they have been recently re-energized by the outbreak of scandals and quasi-scandals in the Obama administration, including one that amounts to a political windfall: the discovery that the IRS targeted tea party applications for tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny.
As congressional primaries approach, the tea party is a major force. The groups turn out for low-participation primaries, and adherents are an essential source of GOP donations and volunteers.
"Tea party supporters are not just a faction within the Republican Party; they are a majority faction," said Professor Ronald B. Rapoport of the College of William & Mary in a recent study.
The problem is that this majority faction holds views often at odds not only with a majority of all voters but also with the rest of the GOP.
Rapoport's polling found that 63 percent of tea party Republicans want to limit immigration; only 48 percent of non-tea party Republicans agree. Among tea partiers, 76 percent want to abolish the Department of Education; only 10 percent of non-tea party Republicans agree.
When asked whether it was more important to cut the deficit or create jobs, 63 percent of tea party supporters opted for cuts. Among non-tea party Republicans, 53 percent put jobs first.
Such polarization already spells trouble in the House, where tea party members balked at "reform conservative" proposals offered by their own majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., beginning with a bill to increase funding for high-risk health insurance pools as an alternative to Obamacare. (Spending was spending, the conservatives objected; they opted for another vote to repeal Obamacare instead.)
It spells trouble in the Senate, where the tea party's newest star, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has brought old-guard GOP leaders to the edge of rage by criticizing them as "a bunch of squishes." He and other tea party senators succeeded in blocking budget negotiations, charging that talks might lead to a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling.
"I don't trust the Republicans, and I don't trust the Democrats," Cruz said.
In fact, some Republicans do want to compromise with President Barack Obama over the debt ceiling. Those GOP leaders don't want to be blamed by the White House for touching off a financial crisis that might interrupt the economy's recovery. Many in the GOP establishment including House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio worry about being branded the party of austerity.
"That's the label President Obama is trying to put on us," said David Winston, a strategist who has advised Boehner. "But if we become the party of austerity, then President Obama and the Democrats become the party of economic growth."
But tea party members don't worry about winning elections. Three-fourths of tea party activists would prefer a strongly conservative candidate who's likely to lose over a moderate likely to win.
On paper, 2014 should be a good election for the GOP. It's the sixth year of the Obama presidency, a time when opposition parties historically do well. Midterm voter turnout is usually lower, so they can't count on the surge of young and minority voters who helped Obama win re-election.
But Democrats have at least one asset: the civil war within the GOP.
LOS ANGELES TIMES