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Minnesota Tea Party gaining supporters, but has little political clout

Officials say membership is growing, but Minnesota Tea Partiers are far less active than their national counterparts.

West Metro Tea Party members gathered in Plymouth for a meeting in September.
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

When the North Metro Tea Party started meeting in 2009, its dozen members could gather in a small coffee shop. Last week, 165 people showed up for the group’s most recent meeting at the Mermaid event center in Mounds View.

From Aitkin to Wright counties, the Minnesota Tea Party has grown from its early days in the north metro to more than 3,000 members statewide, according to Jack Rogers, president of the Tea Party Alliance, the umbrella group that covers roughly 40 affiliate groups in Minnesota. Rogers predicts that by the end of next year that number will grow to more than 5,000. (Rogers considers someone a “member” of the Tea Party if he or she attends more than one event and supplies contact information.)

But Minnesota Tea Partiers are far less active than their national counterparts when it comes to putting their supporters in office. With the exception of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who is not running for reelection in the 6th District, there are few prominent politicians in the state who identify themselves with the Tea Party.

The party does not endorse candidates in Minnesota, doesn’t field candidates in state races and, despite claims by supporters, appears to have had little influence in state elections. (One exception was the 2012 legislative race in District 33b in the western suburbs, where Tea Party activist Cindy Pugh defeated incumbent state Rep. Steve Smith in the Republican primary.)

Center of attention

The Tea Party, of course, is the center of attention in Washington with its supporters playing key roles in the federal government shutdown. But the Tea Party could be marginalized if Democratic and Republican leaders push through a budget deal without meeting major Tea Party demands, including the repeal or defunding of Obamacare.

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Rogers says that’s not his concern. Minnesota’s Tea Party Alliance, he said, keeps its distance from the national scene and tries to influence state policy on taxes and spending, education and health care.

“We prefer to stand by and remind both parties of the Tea Party principles,” added Tea Party Alliance Executive Director Jake Duesenberg.

The Tea Party Alliance is trying establish a base of financial support. The Alliance recently registered as a political action committee, listing Rogers as its chair and Duesenberg as financial director. Duesenberg says the Alliance has raised $28,000, money mainly used to cover the costs for its “traveling Tea Party tool kit,” material that can be used to start a Tea Party chapter.

Rogers said most contributions are $3 to $5. “This is purely grassroots, everyday hardworking people,” he said.

Minnesota’s Tea Partiers, with their philosophy of free markets and limited government, are mainly Republicans, like Rogers. Although he said there are parts of the state GOP platform the Tea Party doesn’t like, “I think the three strongest policies we support together are the right to work, voter identification and protection of human life.” Duesenberg disagrees a little with Rogers, saying that the Tea Party avoids social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Rogers maintains that Minnesota’s Tea Party attracts from all points on the political compass. “At the State Fair booth, we talked to so many people,” he said. “Just as many DFL people as the other parties.”

Parties playing games

Some Tea Party supporters say the shutdown scenario in Washington proves that both parties are playing games with voter trust and tax dollars. “The overarching thing that the Republicans and [Democrats in] the Senate are running from right now is the blame for shutting down the government,” said Joe Arwood, chair of the West Metro Tea Party, which meets monthly in Plymouth.

Pat Anderson, former state auditor and a member of the state GOP’s executive committee, admires the Tea Party stand on principles. “They can’t be co-opted by the existing Republican Party,” she said. “The perception is that both parties restrict, pass laws, play games. Republicans do it through restrictions, perceptions that they favor some business entities over others, the big guy over the little guy.”

Anderson credits the Tea Party with helping Minnesota Republicans take control of the Legislature in 2010. “It’s truly a grassroots movement about individuality and freedom,” she said. “The Republican Party in 2010 took up those themes and it greatly influenced the campaign.”

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Still, Anderson and others agree that Minnesota Tea Party members are less interested in winning seats than they are in winning over minds. “They talk about issues and policy rather than politics,” she said.

According to a legislative scorecard distributed at a recent Tea Party meeting in Plymouth, the party opposes an increase in the minimum wage, “common core” curriculum in schools, unionization of day-care providers and, of course, MNsure and tax increases. The list of policies Tea Partiers support is shorter: construction of nuclear power plants and liquor sales on Sunday.

Rogers says that education rather than active lobbying is the purpose of the state Tea Party’s PAC.  “We are not elitist; we are not trying to set ourselves up as a ruling class,” Rogers said. “One of the things we’ve been successful at is encouraging people how to get  engaged…. to become an election judge or a poll watcher. We do encourage them to go the caucuses in February to watch the process.”

Common sense

Even as Tea Party Republicans in Washington taint their party with the blame for the government shutdown and the possible global financial problems, Anderson said she believes Minnesota Tea Partiers will be a beacon of common sense in the 2014 and 2016 elections.   

“They don’t want gridlock. They want good solid economic policies that don’t favor any entity; they don’t have any other agenda,” she said. “In reality, it is getting back to the basics of what this country is all about — freedom and individualism and keeping America strong.”

That’s the reason that some Republican candidates pay their respects. “They’re fighting for the same principles that I believe in,” Dave Thompson, Republican state senator and candidate for governor, said at recent meeting of the West Metro Tea Party. “I’m here because these are the kinds of people who are likely to support me in an election campaign.”

But Thompson and other candidates may have a long wait for formal Tea Party support. Duesenberg said that for the foreseeable future, the Minnesota Tea Party wants to stay out of the fray of election cycles and won’t officially back and campaign for candidates.

Still, while the Minnesota Tea Party tries to maintain its independence from the sausage making that is politics in 2013, its supporters say the party’s principles will put the United States on the right path.

“This is a nation in great sorrow, great jeopardy, great depression,” said Rogers. “This is a scary thing and we have got to do something.”