Illustration by Joon Mo Kang
Illustration by Joon Mo Kang

The Tea Party movement was a potent political insurgency in U.S. elections last year, and it is a major presence in Washington and state capitols today. It may have a tougher time as an entrenched force next year.

The grassroots, anti-government, conservative movement provided the energy and enthusiasm for the huge Republican gains last November that gave the party control of the House of Representatives. It was driven by the financial meltdown of 2008, the resulting government involvement in the economy, ballooning budget deficits and a visceral dislike of President Barack Obama.

The Tea Party’s influence is pervasive. “We are the dominant force in American politics in Washington, state capitols and at the local level,” says Mark Meckler, co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, one of the movement’s major offshoots.

“The zeitgeist of the times is people are concerned about the growing size and intrusiveness of government, onerous regulations and the skyrocketing national debt,” says Sal Russo, the co-founder and chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, a leading financial donor to affiliated candidates.

The Tea Party movement never has been monolithic, always replete with factions: the dominant anti-government conservatives, social-issues advocates, anti-immigration forces, libertarians and others. “There is a wide divergence,” says Russo, a former strategist for Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp.

2010 Mobilization

In the 2010 election, opposition to Obama and the Democrats galvanized all the Tea Party factions to support Republicans. Exit polling suggests about two in five voters were Tea Party supporters and six of every seven of these voted Republican.

To remain as effective next year, the movement faces several challenges. On the national level and in many states, it has to defend or support the policies of politicians it helped elect. That is much harder than merely opposing.

And there are multiple fault lines. One is whether the movement should focus exclusively on eliminating big government and reducing debt or whether it also should take on social issues such as opposition to gay marriage, abortion and gun control.

“A major divide is between a smaller group that says focus on fiscal conservatism and a larger group that includes social conservatives,” says Judson Phillips, of Tea Party Nation, who is disdainful of the fiscal issues-only crowd.

‘He’s a Lunatic’

That sentiment is returned. “He’s a lunatic,” says Meckler, whose Tea Party Patriots emphasizes the fight against big government. “He has no credibility in the movement.” Phillips once suggested the solution to illegal immigration was to take a “planeload” of undocumented workers and “dump them in Somalia.” He also was a devotee of the anti-Obama birther movement.

On the Tea Party Patriots’ criticism, Phillips replies, “If I am a fringe Tea Party person, I’m the biggest fringe Tea Party person on the Internet.”

You get the picture.

Even when it comes to economic issues, there are divisions over priorities between the pro-business elements and the conservative economic populists. Charles and David Koch, who own a huge energy conglomerate, are important, if often secret, funders of the movement. Some local groups, however, express outrage at corporate subsidies.

Defense Spending

There are similar strains on national-security and foreign policy. Some Tea Partiers say the federal budget crisis is so grave that defense budgets will need to be cut; others say national security spending should be sacrosanct. These grassroots conservatives also are split on the war in Afghanistan and the intervention in Libya.

Take two of the favorites: Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who is considering running from the right against his state’s longtime conservative senator, Orrin Hatch, and Florida Representative Allen West, a freshman who’s become a poster child on Tea Party blogs.

Chaffetz favors bringing all the troops home from Afghanistan as quickly as possible, arguing “we have neither the resources nor the ability to fix all the world’s problems.”

West is a retired Army officer -- the return envelope for one of his fund-raising appeals is labeled Lt. Col. Allen West (Ret.) -- who is dismissive of such sentiments. “Just because you kill Osama bin Laden does not mean that the Taliban has stopped fighting.”

Afghanistan Withdrawal

Of those who would accelerate the troop withdrawal, he says, “I would take these gentlemen over and let them get shot at a few times and maybe they’d have a different opinion.”

There also is an isolationist element -- including more than a few libertarian followers of Texas Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul -- along with an anti-immigrant contingent.

All these strands force Tea Party backers to weigh the pragmatism-versus-principle argument. Some will cite the late William F. Buckley’s dictum that conservatives should support “the most right, viable candidate who could win.” The more ideologically pure reject this advice, citing successes like the victory in the Kentucky Senate race last year of Ron Paul’s son, Rand.

These debates are on display in the Republican presidential derby as no aspirant has cornered the Tea Party vote. Ron Paul has a devoted following within the libertarian bloc; Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, brandish their conservative credentials on social issues.

Palin’s Lead

“Palin jumped out to a huge lead, but hasn’t been able to close the deal,” says Phillips, who brought the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee to the Tea Party convention he organized in Nashville last year, paying her a reported $100,000 fee.

The candidacy of Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, may rest on winning the initial test in the Iowa caucuses, where conservative activists dominate. He is relying on a sweeping economic initiative that would slash spending, including Medicare and Social Security, while cutting taxes on wealthier Americans.

The race is wide open, with no front runner. That is befitting a movement that, by some accounts, was launched when an obscure financial-television reporter let loose with an on-air rant about big government.

Russo, who was involved in Ross Perot’s third-party effort two decades ago, says it’s good the movement hasn’t coalesced behind any leader. “We learned from Perot,” he says. “If one person becomes the face of the Tea Party and falters, the movement falters.”

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Albert Hunt in Washington at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net