For several decades, there has been an establishment vs evangelical split in the GOP party. The evangelicals pushed forward the social issues and the establishment pushed many of the technocratic policy issues. Because there was no major contradictions, the marriage across the divide worked well.
When the Tea Party cannon-balled onto the scene in 2009/2010, it threatened to create a new schism in the party. Numerous establishment candidates lost in primaries, and the 2010 midterms brought a large and boisterous wave of new congressional seats under the Tea Party caucus banner that proceeded to create a significant thorn in the backsides of congressional leaders. Millions proudly claimed to be members of the new Tea Party.
Yet, the party (and really it is a caucus) always had something of an identity problem. Its policy positions seemed to be a sort of souped up or more serious version of traditional Republican orthodoxy. They want to cut taxes and spending, only more so. But this is a difference of tone and rhetoric, not really of ideology.
At its beginning, the Tea Party was heavily influenced by Ron Paul (sometimes considered the father of the movement) and the growing libertarian leanings among some voters. However, in many ways it got co-opted by the evangelicals who pushed the social issues as key to the movement. The Tea Party then became this sort of hybrid between the libertarians, the evangelicals, and a sort of souped up version of the establishment.
In the Iowa race, we saw the establishment guy, the libertarian guy, and the evangelical guy. But not someone that really represented the Tea Party and managed to do well. That mantel of being the Tea Party candidate passed, over the last six months, from Michele Bachman to Rick Perry to Herman Cain. After Bachman (the leader of the caucus in congress), the associations never made much sense and were of the form of hoping self identified Tea Partiers would vote for these others who were not really strongly identified as being Tea Party. After Cain, people abandoned any hope of even referencing the Tea Party and instead just talked about appealing to the evangelical vote in Iowa. The most visible Tea Party leader was Sarah Palin who elected not to run, probably correctly sensing the political climate made her winning an impossibility; that her mantel was not able to be successfully transferred to a Bachmann or otherwise is important.
The fact that after the enormous success of the 2010 midterms for the Tea Party, the race has not come down to a contest between an establishment Mitt Romney and some Tea Party representative, as one might have expected six months ago, demonstrates that this is not the dominate schism in the party. In fact, the Tea Party seems larger irrelevant in this contest and it was more reminiscent of the 2008 contest with Huckabee taking the evangelical vote in Iowa. Time will tell, but the Iowa contest may come to mark the day when the Tea Party began to decline into irrelevancy.
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