Polls say faith in the tea party is dropping -- but is it?

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By ISABELLE CHAPMAN

Last spring, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) told the New York Times, "I think we're going to crush them everywhere," referring to the tea party that burst on the political scene in 2004. Crush them, indeed. McConnell steamrolled his tea party-backed Republican primary challenger Matt Bevin last May, capturing 60.2 percent of the vote.

But just because the tea party has struggled to knock out incumbent Republican senators doesn't mean the movement is crumbling.

In May, the Pew Research Center released a report that indicated that faith in the tea party is falling, and fast. The report showed that the number of Republicans who agree with the right wing group has dropped nearly a third; 48 percent in March of 2010, to 33 percent in the Pew Center's most recent poll conducted in late April. That number dropped as low as 28 percent in May 2013.

In addition, the number of Republicans who actually call themselves tea party supporters has fallen from 61 percent in November 2010 to 41 percent last April.

But Taylor Budwich, executive director of Tea Party Express, a national tea party group, says he's optimistic about the party, and about the upcoming midterm election.

"The tea party voters are the most engaged in the election and most active in going out to vote. That's what the strength of the tea party is," he said.

Budowich may be right. Gallup conducted a poll in late September that indicated that 73 percent of tea party Republicans are "extremely/very motivated to vote."

That same poll indicated that roughly 54 percent of tea party Republicans have "given quite a lot/some thought to elections," compared to 31 percent of other Republicans.

Budowich says that regardless of what the poll indicates, many of the issues that the tea party is working to resolve, like fiscal responsibility, have become more important to the broader Republican Party in the past four years.

"In 2010, [Republicans] weren't carrying the tea party message, but now so many of those who were elected in 2010 or 2012 carry those values," Budowich said.

Richard Norton Smith, a historian and author who most recently published a biography of Nelson Rockefeller, who was a prominent Republican during the mid-20th century and vice president under Gerald Ford, says that winning elections for the tea party isn't the only test of success. Commanding influence over the mainstream Republican Party may be where they are legitimately triumphant.

"They want to settle at the center of political gravity and influence [the Republican] party whether it's through fear or inspiration. In many ways, dominate the party. They've been pretty successful at that," Smith said of the tea party.

Perhaps the reason the polls indicate a decline in agreement among Republicans with the tea party is because these values have become more commonly associated with the general GOP. "I would argue they won a victory of sorts in that they have had [the Republicans] move considerably to the right," Smith said.

Daniel Scarpinato, the national press secretary at the National Republican Congressional Committee, sees little difference between the tea party and the broader GOP.

"Those are media labels," Scarpinato said. "I don't really put candidates in terms of labels. They're all mainstream Republicans."

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