Tea Party activism: MIA in MN

by Briana Bierschbach
Pub: Saint Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report
Issued: September 22,2010

Despite striking primary upsets in some states, movement shows little traction here

On a Saturday afternoon in July, a dozen or so locals sat under a gazebo in Central Park in downtown North Branch. “Wanted: Karl Marx” posters were stapled to the gazebo, and a welcome sign and a waving Don’t Tread on Me flag greeted members of the Old North Church Tea Party to what was billed as a candidate forum.

Participants sat on picnic benches that were drawn into a circle to face Ted Lazane, the event’s organizer. Lazane explained that the purpose of the gathering was to allow candidates running for public office in the area a chance to talk to Tea Party members.

But before the candidates could speak, one person in the crowd stood up and gave a five-minute speech about the federal government’s decimation of the Constitution. After he was finished, several others wanted to speak too, and were upset when Lazane said no. He wanted to get to the candidate discussion. Then another person stood up and protested to the candidates speaking, saying the Tea Party was not supposed to endorse political candidates.

In the end, several Republican candidates running for the Legislature spoke for a few minutes and were promptly cut off when their time was up. Most agreed the forum was slapped together and poorly organized. Nothing much was accomplished. .

The gathering offered a pointed contrast to the thousands of Tea Party members who rallied on the St. Paul Capitol lawn on tax day and at the Minneapolis Convention center for the Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin rally in April. During session, Tea Partiers showed up in droves to events to talk about the Constitution, their fiscal conservative values and their inevitable impact on the November elections. The Tea Party Express even parked its bus on the St. Paul Capitol’s front steps to announce the creation of a National Tea Party Federation. Nationally, the group is proving its power with major upsets in several state primary elections.

But insurgency rumblings have quieted in Minnesota. Two of the more visible Tea Party candidates running in state GOP primaries – Rudy Takala in Pine County and Kerry Stoick in Dodge County – went down to the party’s establishment candidates, and the media blitz has all but disappeared.

“Their influence has waned throughout the summer,” said Darin Broton, a DFL political analyst. “They are not as vocal and as loud as they were during the session. They’re not going to have much of an influence at all on elections if they stay this quiet in the next seven weeks. If they are on the ground, you’re not feeling it.”

A longtime Republican operative has the same feeling. “They are not organized and they have no clear leader. There is no cohesive structure for them statewide,” the source said. “I just don’t see them making a big difference.”

Realistic expectations

The face behind the Tea Party’s springtime gusto was Toni Backdahl, coordinator for the Minnesota Tea Party Patriots. She organized the tax day rally and coordinated events across the state. But she resigned from the position this summer, saying she feared the Republican Party was infiltrating Tea Party ranks.

A new group formed in its wake at the end of August. The Minnesota North Star Tea Party Patriots aims to be the umbrella organization that unites dozens of fragmented groups around the state and coordinates their efforts when possible, spokesman Walter Hudson said. The coalition is affiliated with the national Tea Party Patriots organization.

The new group has raised the Tea Party’s profile slightly in recent weeks. Organizers are promoting Tea Party events in Rochester and Forest Lake, and recently held a potluck in Maple Grove that brought out legislative candidates, Hudson said. But Hudson admits that the election is closing in and the new group is still in the “gathering the chicks under the wing phase.”

“There’s definitely been a conversation in our group on how realistic it is to expect to have a substantial effect on this year’s election,” Hudson said. “I don’t think it’s the end-all, be-all for us to talk about elections. They are important and we are putting what effort we can within our sphere of influence, but it serves no one any good to try and exaggerate that sphere and our expectations.”

Hudson said the group is trying to narrow its efforts by focusing on important issues that get lost in the political fray. That includes election reform and judicial candidates. The group has locked down a forum at the end of September that will gather 24 candidates running for a judge slot in the 10th judicial district.

Gregg Peppin, a longtime GOP activist now working for P2B Strategies, said he sees Tea Party members playing a modest – albeit still important – role in certain legislative races. Peppin said it’s possible that Tea Party momentum could help to tip the scales in several legislative districts where past races have been decided by less than 100 votes.

There are few explicit Tea Party candidates running for the Legislature after Takala and Stoick went down in the primary. Several GOP election operatives say there are no so-called Tea Party candidates left, although Senate District 10 Republican candidate Gretchen Hoffman and GOP House District 11B candidate Mary Franson have been known to attend the group’s events.

In the three-way gubernatorial race, Broton said the Tea Party has already played a role in the nomination of Republican state Rep. Tom Emmer at the state convention. With Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin’s last-minute endorsement of his candidacy and a new energized party base latching onto Emmer’s fiery stump presence, he was propelled to victory in only two ballots over the GOP’s establishment favorite, state Rep. Marty Seifert.

The group’s visibility in the state’s gubernatorial race has waned, however. Toni Backdahl said the Emmer team has tried to take over and capitalize on the state’s Tea Party movement, but has been unsuccessful because of the group’s fragmented nature.

“Team Emmer has been really aggressive from the start and they were throwing barrels and nails on my path to start this grassroots movement,” she said. “They were undermining me every step of the way.”

“Tea parties are a mixed bag group of people who have flocked to Tom on the fiscal-related issues,” said Emmer campaign spokesman Carl Kuhl. “The main issues people have are about the federal debt, and that really resonates with Tom’s message that government needs to live within its means.” Kuhl said Emmer isn’t attending Tea Party rallies and the campaign isn’t specifically reaching out to Tea Party groups.

A leave-me-alone movement

It’s also hard to build a cohesive movement around the movement’s abiding individualism and distrust of institutions. Many Tea Party groups refuse to endorse political candidates or participate in talk of electoral politics for fear of tying themselves to anything connected to the “overbearing” government.

Writer Mark Lilla claims the Tea Party phenomenon is something new in the annals of American populist movements. In a New York Review of Books piece titled “The Tea Party Jacobins,” he wrote:

“Historically, populist movements use the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that ‘the people’ can exercise it for their common benefit. American populist rhetoric does something altogether different today. It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power. It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.”

Tea Party activists, many of them political newcomers, want the government out of their health care, out of their businesses and out of their personal lives. (In some cases, they even want the government to stay out of government: CD8 congressional candidate George Burton, an independent with Tea Party sympathies, is proposing cuts in the time lawmakers actually spend inside Capitol walls.)

Generally, “Tea Party” opinions vary from state to state and group to group on issues like gay marriage and immigration.

“The Tea Party is trying to transition from being a social protest group into a political force, and that’s always difficult,” noted David Schultz, political pundit and professor at Hamline University. “What makes it especially difficult for them is, on some levels, they may be defined more by what they are against than are what they are for.”

Ian Marsh, who is working on House GOP caucus elections, sees this “hands-off” theme as something the GOP in Minnesota can tap into. Marsh says Republican’s message of smaller government, lower taxes, and less federal spending aligns most closely with the messages of the Tea Party.

The lesser of two evils

While candidates were speaking at the North Branch forum, several Tea Party devotees hovered nearby, grumbling about how Democrats have labeled the group as Republican, and how Republicans just assume they will have Tea Party support in November.

“We are sick and tired of the parties of the good old boys,” said North Branch resident Mark Koran. “It’s just a selection of the lesser of two evils. They should just put ‘none of the above’ on the ballot.”

Their ideal candidate is what Koran and others called a “constitutional conservative,” or someone who follows in lock step with their view of the country’s founding documents. Tea Party purists have described themselves as dejected dropouts from across the political spectrum: recovering Republicans, disenchanted Democrats, libertarians, or those who have been “politically uninterested” – as one North Branch resident put it – until now.

But in Minnesota, all candidates associated with the Tea Party have either sought the GOP’s endorsement or mounted runs in Republican primaries. Some observers think Tea Partiers are just more-active-than-usual Republicans, spurred to action by widespread dissatisfaction with the stimulus package, the federal health care bill and the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama.

Peppin argues that the Republican Party and the Tea Party have a cooperative “synergy” in Minnesota that you don’t find in other states across the country. Tea Party favorites Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Carl Paladino in New York recently took down Republican establishment candidates in primary elections. Many see the group nationally as bucking the traditional Grand Old Party. That’s not the case in Minnesota, Peppin said, partly because of the state GOP’s open caucus system.

Broton believes that the Tea Party is just a particularly active portion of the Republican Party base in Minnesota. “They are people who typically vote Republican, but the Tea Party movement has organized a fringe part of their base to show up this year,” he said. “It’s really always been about Republican politics.”

Takala, who started a Tea Party-friendly political action committee called Simply Right after losing the Aug. 10 primary, said the Tea Party movement hasn’t been as widespread in Minnesota because the state is more liberal than others and there isn’t a national race to spark interest. Takala sees the national spirit of the Tea Party coming to Minnesota by 2012, when high-profile Senate and presidential races will be on the ballot. This year in Minnesota, he sees the Tea Party slightly boosting the vote total for Republicans.

“I think that these types of movements are great for increasing the conservative vote at least a bit in Minnesota,” he said. “That’s all you can really hope for in a year like this.”