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Legislative candidates find Tea Party’s red-hot rage has cooled considerably

Two years ago, candidates frequently were greeted with anger at doors across the state. This year, the tenor seems different.

The Tea Party, a potent force when this photo was taken in April 2010, seems more subdued this time around.
CC/Flickr/Fibonacci Blue

battle for control series logoTwo years ago, Minnesota legislative candidates frequently were greeted with anger at doors across the state.

Contempt of bank bailouts and Obamacare were the first words candidates heard as they worked their districts. That anger, often fired by the Tea Party Patriots, was a key factor in sweeping Republicans to control of both the House and Senate.

This year, the tenor seems different, according to many candidates running in many of the 28 highly contested races that MinnPost is following as the DFL and GOP battle for control of the 2013 Legislature.  

(You can check out those races in our MinnPost interactive graphic, which allows you to review a range of scenarios that look at whether the DFL will regain the majorities it lost in 2010 or whether Republicans will keep control of both houses. You also can share your predictions with others and learn about any of the 201 legislative races.)

A cooling period

To be sure, there’s still disgust directed at many pols — mostly about “partisan bickering” — but the red-hot rage seems considerably cooler.

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Early in his campaign, for example, DFLer Roger Erickson, who is running against first-term Republican incumbent Dave Hancock in District 2A, said he was hearing unkind remarks about Obamacare. But in June, after the Supreme Court ruling upholding the federal health-care reform law,” the issue went almost completely away,” he said.

Hancock supports the notion that big, federal issues aren’t affecting his race the way they did two years ago, when he defeated three-term DFL incumbent Brita Sailer.

Obamacare, he agrees, “doesn’t have the resonance it had.”

Walter Hudson, an activist with the North Star Tea Party Patriots, however, begs to differ — in a way.

“I couldn’t disagree more with the assessment that Obamacare has disappeared as an issue,’’ he said. “On the contrary, the Supreme Court decision ruling framed the debate in starker terms than ever before. It is no longer just about health care but the capacity of the federal government to mandate anything imaginable. … through taxation.”

Still, Hudson agrees that the strength of the Tea Party has been “blunted.”

There is some indication that the Tea Party has been divided — though not defeated — by a combo package of the Republican Party, social conservatives and the Ron Paul movement.

Sustaining anger not easy

When Marianne Stebbins, leader of the Paul movement in Minnesota, views the political landscape in Minnesota she still sees anger, but …

Marianne Stebbins
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Marianne Stebbins

“Sustained anger takes a lot of energy,” Stebbins said. “Some of those pitchfork-wielding Tea Partiers were absorbed by the GOP where they are working for the bailout-supporting presidential ticket. The more independent or principled ones jumped on board with Ron Paul’s campaign where they poured their hearts out. … I still see a lot of anger but it is subdued. Not accepting, but weary.”

Two years ago, everything seemed so simple.

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The Tea Party welcomed all who were seeking limited government and tight fiscal management.

People coming to Tea Party events were asked to check at the door all other issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.

Tea Partiers and Ron Paul supporters still generally have empathy for each other, although there is growing speculation among the Paul folks that the Tea Party has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists and social conservatives. In at least some cases, the Paul “objectivists” have been told they’re not welcome at Tea Party meetings.

Take a moment for a definition of “objectivist,” which, to some of us, is a new term in contemporary politics.

The term comes from Ayn Rand, author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” which border on the biblical for some Paul followers.

According to Rand herself, objectivism means “reality exists as an objective absolute — facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.”

Objectivists apparently rub some fundamentalist Christians the wrong way, which has led to the concern among the Paul crowd about the direction the Tea Party is headed.

‘Takeover’ disputed

The Tea Party’s Hudson disputes this “takeover business.”

Walter Hudson
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Walter Hudson

“Checking social issues at the door does not preclude picking them up on your way out,” Hudson said, “and certainly doesn’t preclude supporting a candidate who shares your views. What the Paulites saw was interest among Tea Partiers in candidates like Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann.

“They took this to mean that the Tea Party had been ‘taken over’ by social conservatives. It has not,” he said. “There are simply social conservatives in the mix, working together with libertarians and others on the economic and constitutional issues they all agree on.”

God, Rand, Paul, Mitt Romney — what does all this heady stuff mean in the hard-core world of elective politics?

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Romney at the top of the GOP ticket is off-putting to both Tea Partiers and the Paul followers. The Tea Party’s Hudson believes some will sit out the election, or at least not vote in the presidential race.

“But I believe the impact of the movement will still be powerful in down-ticket races where activists have had a greater impact in determining who is on the ballot,” Hudson said.

The Paul group, as evidenced by its control of the delegation at the Republican National Convention, has shown, in many cases, to be remarkably adept at taking over leadership positions within some congressional districts within the GOP.

But just how effective they’ve been in leadership is questionable. For that matter, just how loyal most Paulites are to the Republican Party is questionable.

According to some GOP activists, there are two sorts of Paul followers when it comes to the party.

“There are builders and destroyers,” said Jeff Kolb, an active Republican volunteer in Senate District 45, which includes Robbinsdale, Golden Valley and Plymouth.

The builders are working with longtime Republicans on such things as get-out-the vote efforts, which are key to the outcomes in legislative races.

The destroyers are inactive, Kolb says, either for reasons of “incompetence” or “deliberate destructive behavior.”

When they work together, Paul and Tea Party forces can deliver big results, especially at local levels.

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‘Combo’ did in Rep. Smith

After 22 years in the House, for example, moderate Republican Steve Smith of Mound felt the wrath of the combo package of Tea Partiers and the Paulites in House District 33B. First, Smith lost the endorsement to Cindy Pugh, a founder of the Southwest Metro Tea Party. Then, she defeated him in the August primary.

Pugh now presents herself mostly as a fiscal conservative. But in the past, some of her website postings have gone far past dollars and civility. This spring, for example, she posted a photo of black-robed women (presumably Muslim) next to a black, plastic garbage bag.

On her site, Pugh wrote: “Disturbing that women and little girls are okay with dressing like this!”

After City Pages reported on the photo and her commentary, it disappeared from the Pugh site.

Smith still is saddened by his defeat, but he understands it.

Rep. Steve Smith
Rep. Steve Smith

“The world is run by those who show up,” the longtime legislator said. “Her folks showed up. Mine didn’t. … The Republicans I knew have their work cut out for them. They have to start showing up at the meetings and at the polls if they want to take their party back.”

The Tea Party is filled with “extremists and worse,” Smith said.

“But here’s my problem,” he continued. “I was in the middle of the road. If you’re in the middle of the road, you’re going to get hit by the bus. Right now, it seems like you’d better be in one lane or the other or the bus is going to get you.”

It should be noted that Pugh didn’t just win the support of Tea Partiers and the Paul supporters. She got the endorsement of Michele Bachmann and also House Speaker Kurt Zellers, who clearly was more concerned with Smith’s independent streak than with some of Pugh’s extremist tendencies.

The bus crushed Smith. But it’s unclear who was driving the bus. And it’s not clear if winning the support of Tea Party and Paul activists will pay off at the polls this time.

In some races, DFLers are hopeful that the Tea Party/Paul label will work against their opponent.

For example, in District 51B, DFL candidate Laurie Halverson is running against Doug Wardlow – and the Tea Party. “Eagan doesn’t need to be represented by the voice of the Tea Party,” Halverson tells potential voters.

That sounds like the exact opposite message that was a winner two years ago.

Evolution in progress

And we’ll see where the Tea Party evolution takes it.

A Tea Party gathering in Arden Hills last week, for example, drew roughly 400 to hear from speakers and to watch the vice presidential debate.

North Metro TEA Party Patriot Coordinator Jack Rogers hosted the event of about
MinnPost photo by James Nord
North Metro TEA Party Patriot Coordinator Jack Rogers hosted the event, which drew  about 400.

Jack Rogers, a coordinator with the North Metro TEA Party Patriots, said the group was larger than the usual 250 people that attend monthly meetings at the Blue Fox Bar and Grill. He described the audience as an eclectic mix of Republicans, Democrats, independents, Tea Partiers and Paul supporters.

The keynote speaker, an attorney named KrisAnne Hall, gave the Tea Partiers a history lesson in the Constitution and the foundations of America. Conservative radio talk-show hosts Tom Emmer and Bob Davis were also featured to discuss the debate.

Emmer, the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate in 2010, said he believes the Tea Party is becoming more refined.

“I just think they’re becoming more sophisticated in terms of the political process,” he said, surveying the crowd. “If this is any indication, the Tea Party is alive and well in Minnesota. I just think they’re becoming a lot more sophisticated in the art of politics in the political process.”

Rogers also insisted that the Tea Party has grown past the primal anger that inspired it in 2010. “The core group of people was frustrated that the politicians were not listening, and when somebody doesn’t listen to them, the people act, and they acted and what has been born is not going to go away,” he said. “We’re going to go through our childhood, we’re going to go through our teenage years, and we’re going to grow into adults … and eventually … the Tea Party will be like the normal party.”

That frustration appears to continue to be a motivating factor in what Rogers referred to as a four-election-cycle process to make the Tea Party mainstream.

“I feel like we have 30 days to change the direction of the election, and I am talking to anybody and everybody I can because I think if Obama gets elected again, life as we know it in America will cease to exist,” Jolie Lahlum, a Lino Lakes resident, said as she walked into the gathering.

“Anger is not driving me. It’s the frustration … nobody in Washington cares about America,” Liz Wagner of White Bear Lake said as she left. “They would sell it down the river and not bat an eye.”