Politics & Policy

The Cruz Campaign Shows Us the Tea Party Still Counts

(Spencer Platt/Getty)

The story of the week in the GOP nomination fight is all about organization. Ted Cruz has it, Donald Trump doesn’t, and so Cruz is not only vacuuming up every available delegate, he’s actually stacking Trump’s delegations with his own supporters. On April 1, Politico reported that more than 100 delegates are poised to break from Trump after the first ballot, and for Trump the picture is worsening every day.

He’s losing every organizational battle, and his people on the ground seem woefully unprepared. By contrast, the Cruz campaign is emerging as a model of preparation and efficiency. Again and again, when state and local party decisions have to be made — when organization truly counts — the Cruz team is getting the job done. It’s a marvel.

Or is it? While no one should discount Cruz’s organizational prowess, he’s not that good. One of the hidden stories of the 2016 GOP campaign is the extent to which Cruz is the beneficiary of years of local tea-party organizational effort. Activists have made a long and patient effort to both infiltrate the Republican party and build, in essence, a “shadow” party — a party within a party.

RELATED: Ted Cruz Is Surging by Design

The era of its mass rallies might be over, and the Tea Party label may have fallen out of fashion, but tea-party activists have built their own organizational base, and in many states it competes with or even dominates the traditional party structures. In other words, the Tea Party has its own “establishment” of politicians and activists, and it just might carry Cruz over the GOP finish line.

Seven years after the legendary Rick Santelli rant that helped launch a movement, it’s increasingly clear what the Tea Party was and was not — and what it is and is not. It was a mass movement that mobilized voters who were angry at Obama and the Republican establishment. It was not a mass movement centered around constitutional conservatism. It is a new and likely enduring part of the Republican coalition. It is not poised to remake the party itself or to become a major player as a third party. The Tea Party is part of the GOP, but it will never become the GOP. The movement simply isn’t large enough.

#share#With the benefit of hindsight, we can better evaluate the Tea Party’s popular high point, the halcyon days of huge rallies and soaring approval ratings. It was a constitutional protest movement, yes, but the emphasis was much more on “protest” than on the Constitution.

While there were certainly many constitutional conservatives within the Tea Party, and there was large-scale renewed interest in constitutional governance, the Tea Party did not, in fact, transform the rank and file of the Republican base into true small-government conservatives. This reality was hard to see — at least for a time — because the actual tea-party candidates who challenged the GOP establishment often merged constitutional and populist themes in their rhetoric. If the message was “throw the bums out and restore the Constitution,” it was sometimes hard to discern which was the dominant motivation: tossing the bums, or restoring the Constitution.

RELATED: Cruz Must Be the Anti-Trump

Then along came Donald Trump, a man who decisively separated Republican populism from constitutional conservatism. He’s the “burn it down” candidate, the big-government “nationalist” who’d probably flunk a basic civics test. (He thinks that judges sign bills and that the president can execute cop-killers by executive order, for example.) He smashed the anti-establishment coalition into its component parts, leaving populists and constitutional conservatives glaring at each other across a yawning ideological divide.

So far, the constitutional conservatives are less terrifying to so-called establishment-lane voters; thus, though they are fewer in number, they are more capable of building coalitions. Oh, and constitutional conservatives are far better organized. They’ve done the hard work of running for office, forming activist organizations (in the face of years-long IRS persecution), and lobbying legislators. This is Ted Cruz’s network, and seven years of hand-to-hand fights with Democrats and establishment Republicans have readied them for this moment.

#related#In March, when I voted for Cruz in the Tennessee primary, I also had the opportunity to vote for individual delegates. I was familiar with most of Cruz’s slate. They were some of the state’s most outspoken and committed conservative activists — people who (for good and ill) have never backed down from a fight. While Trump certainly has his loyalists, his network simply can’t compare.

While the outcome of the GOP nomination is still very much in doubt, I put Cruz in as a narrow favorite. In a fractured party, the victory is likely to go to the man and the movement who prepared to win, and Cruz and the constitutional-conservative movement have certainly prepared. The death of the Tea Party has been greatly exaggerated.

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