In the past week, two powerful leaders of the Tea Party movement in Washington have said they’re leaving their current posts, after an election in which voters decisively rejected conservative ideas. But progressives looking to dance on the Tea Party’s grave may wind up disappointed.
Monday, Dick Armey, a former speaker of the House, confirmed to Mother Jones that he’s stepping down as the head of FreedomWorks, which he had turned into among the most powerful conservative grassroots organizing groups in the country. Then Thursday, Sen. Jim DeMint, perhaps the most influential conservative lawmaker in Congress and the founder of the Tea Party caucus, announced he’s leaving government to run the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.
There’s no doubt the twin developments suggest a Tea Party in transition, as it looks to move beyond the upstart movement that grabbed headlines in the first two years of President Obama’s term, and establish itself as a permanent part of the political infrastructure. Armey’s departure—smoothed by an $8 million pay out—appears to have been the result of a clash over strategy that came to a head after the election defeat. And DeMint’s decision deprives the Tea Party of its most powerful champion in Congress.
But Tea Partiers are sounding anything but deflated. There’s been little detectable hand-wringing within the movement over Armey’s departure. And as for DeMint, who had pledged to serve just one more term in the Senate, at least one key activist is cheering the news.
“Jim DeMint’s power in the conservative movement just grew exponentially,” wrote RedState’s Erick Erickson, an influential conservative activist, in a blog post Thursday. “A man who was going to retire in four years anyway, will now be leading the conservative movement from its base of operations for years to come.”
That’s how DeMint’s allies are framing the move, too. “He sees his role now as working with the grassroots on the outside to bring out real change in Washington," Matt Hoskins, a DeMint adviser who runs a conservative SuperPAC told The Washington Post. "It also means that Republicans have a strong leader on the outside to support them when they do what's right and hold them accountable when they don't."
As for the loss to the Senate GOP caucus, Erickson argued that newer conservative senators recruited in recent years by DeMint—including Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, and Marco Rubio of Florida—are ready to continue DeMint’s work.
“It is time for the tea party senators he brought to the Senate to stretch their legs and prove they are Jim DeMint’s ideological heirs,” Erickson wrote.
Indeed, in some ways the movement appears more confident than ever. After Speaker John Boehner signed off on a purge of several conservative lawmakers from their committee posts, Redstate announced a campaign to “depose” him.