A little more than a dozen years ago, a new movement erupted in American politics calling itself "the Tea Party." In the midterm elections of 2010, that movement remade Congress and helped the Republican Party to a decade of dominance in electing the legislatures of roughly 30 states.
The phrase "Tea Party" has since faded from the scene. The congressional caucus that went by that name has been largely inactive for years. But the political ferment and fervor once associated with that label have grown more intense as they were reshaped by former President Donald Trump.
Today, the populist energy within the Republican Party goes by the name he gave it: MAGA (Make America Great Again). And its influence on the 2022 midterms seems destined to track that of the Tea Party surge in 2010.
There is one difference between then and now that could alter that trajectory. The Tea Party was driven largely by hostility to former President Obama. It never had a singular leader of its own whose brand was a driving force in itself – for good or ill. The current MAGA movement is essentially defined by Trump. Its future, short-term and long, will depend largely on his.
Given all we know about Trump, that sword could be extremely sharp on both edges on Election Day.
High tide for the Tea Party
The Tea Party name was both a slogan (Taxed Enough Already) and a feisty reference to the legendary Boston Tea Party of 1773. In grade school we all saw pictures of colonial anti-tax activists tossing tea from a cargo ship in Boston harbor, a prelude to the American Revolution.
The colonial protesters' Don't Tread on Me flag from that period was often seen among the signs waved by protestors on Washington's National Mall in the spring of 2009. The crowds grew and spread to state capitals and converged on town hall meetings that members of Congress held back home.
At the outset, they were primarily protesting the tax and spending plans of the new administration under President Barack Obama. But signs at rallies also targeted gun control and abortion, and some depicted Obama with a slice of watermelon for a mouth. Soon enough, the movement found its focus in the health care reforms known as Obamacare.
Some in the Tea Party movement also cast doubt on Obama's legitimacy as president, insisting he had been born in Africa. Although that particular theory was thoroughly disproven, it retained its appeal and its power to rouse rowdy crowds. It also merged well with the issue of Obamacare, and the combination formed the basis for the emerging candidacy of Trump, who would also add the promise of a wall across the entire U.S.-Mexican border.
Trump had been known as a high-stakes, high-risk Manhattan businessman and flamboyant media personality. He had been a Democrat before flirting with a third-party presidential bid in 2000. Then he turned up at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2011.
The Tea Party movement was then nearing its second birthday and riding high. The Tea Party Caucus had formed in Congress with 52 members the previous summer, reflecting the popularity of the label in the wake of the 2010 midterms. In those critical elections, robust Republican turnout (and lackluster Democratic turnout) helped the party capture more than 60 seats in the U.S. House — the most the GOP had flipped in one election since 1938.
Republicans also captured six governorships (for a total of 29) and increased the number of state legislative chambers they controlled from 36 to 60. Obama called it "a shellacking."
A different story in the Senate
But the 2010 beatdown had one missing piece. While Republicans romped in many Senate races that year — winning 24 of the 37 on the ballot and gaining 6 seats — they fell short of winning a majority in that chamber. While Tea Party turnout helped the party outpoll Democrats for the Senate by 2 million votes nationally, it wasn't quite enough.
In 2012, with Obama winning a second term as president, Republicans held their majority in the House but again struggled in the Senate races. Democrats won 23 of the 31 Senate seats on that year's ballot, including two in particular the GOP had counted on winning.
One was the Indiana seat of longtime incumbent Republican Richard Lugar. Lugar was shocked by a Tea Party challenger, Richard Mourdock, who got 60% in the primary. But in a debate that fall, Mourdock defended his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape by saying such a pregnancy was still "something God intended." He lost to a Democrat that fall.
Another seat Republicans had expected to win was in Missouri, where incumbent Claire McCaskill was considered the most vulnerable Democratic senator of the cycle. The crowded Republican primary was won by Todd Akin, a member of the Tea Party Caucus in Congress, who in a debate with McCaskill said this about a pregnancy following a rape: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down." McCaskill wound up winning reelection easily.
In the 2014 cycle, Obama was no longer on the ballot to juice Democratic turnout. But he was still in office, and that spurred Republican turnout. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell saw his opportunity to end eight years of minority status and put a heavy thumb on the scale in that year's Republican primaries. His direction of party resources to the mainstream nominees he preferred put him at odds with Tea Party enthusiasts in several contests.
McConnell's picks won, and in the fall they beat the Democrats in two thirds of the races, gaining nine seats and installing McConnell as majority leader. As majority leader, he blocked one Supreme Court nominee (by Obama in 2016) and oversaw the confirmation of three nominated by Trump.
A different kind of Republican
Trump was never a conventional Republican, as McConnell would be the first to say. Trump did not try to claim the mantle of previous Republican presidents. He did not woo the Republicans' party elites or major donors. He had no previous government experience and regarded that as an asset. He never really claimed the Tea Party label, but as he became increasingly visible as a candidate during Obama's second term, he co-opted much of the Tea Party agenda and schedule of grievances.
He also borrowed a slogan from Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns ("Let's Make America Great Again") trimming the first word for brevity and punch. The four-letter acronym was soon emblazoned on a million campaign hats and regularly added to Trump's messages on Twitter. His followers embraced it.
Trump has now been out of office for 16 months, but MAGA marches on. Like the Tea Party rising in the first two years of Obama's presidency, MAGA has thrived as Democratic President Joe Biden has struggled. Inflation is at a 40-year high, and the country is in a restive mood.
Biden has fallen 16 percentage points in the Gallup measure of presidential approval, just as Obama had fallen by about 20 at a comparable point in 2010 (Obama had started at 67% approval, Biden at 57%).
Throughout that year, the Tea Party positioned itself to spearhead the new majority GOP in the next Congress. MAGA is doing much the same now. But just as the Tea Party then was a force in House races that sometimes misfired on the statewide stage, MAGA is likely to be tested in 2022 and beyond.
The past haunts the present
Candidates who had Trump's endorsement have won important primaries for the Senate in swing states such as Ohio and North Carolina. The former was especially notable, as many of the state's establishment Republicans had stuck with one of their own, Josh Mandel, while Trump jumped in for the right-wing firebrand J.D. Vance.
In North Carolina, where former governor Pat McCrory was running for the GOP Senate nod, the primary winner is Trump-backed and lesser-known Rep. Ted Budd, who has refused to say whether Biden is the legitimate president.
Pennsylvania's primary showed both the power of Trump's endorsement and its potential unintended consequences. For the Senate, Trump strongly endorsed the celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, snubbing a hedge fund billionaire who had served in the George W. Bush administration. That race appears to be headed for a statewide recount.
Even more eye-catching was Trump's choice in the Pennsylvania governor's race. Former Rep. Lou Barletta, a loyal Trump supporter, was in the hunt, but Trump opted for Doug Mastriano, a retired colonel and state legislator who was actively involved in trying to overturn Biden's win in the state last fall.
Mastriano was in the angry crowd outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when rioters entered the House and Senate chambers attempting to overturn the election. He has been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating that attack.
He has also been an outspoken foe of all abortions. The memory of what happened to Mourdock and Akin, caught out on the issue of abortion, is especially meaningful at this moment.
Total bans are now the legislative agenda in some states, and could be part of the GOP's congressional agenda next year if they are in charge and the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade as expected this summer.
Trump and the risk
The issue of abortion access might help Democrats address their perennial problem with turnout in midterm elections. The same might be true of Trump's sure-to-be-visible role in many campaigns this fall.
Trump offers a backstop for Republicans in some races, but he also poses a risk. Most Republicans want the 2022 elections to be about inflation and federal mandates. Trump's role risks making them instead a referendum on him and his baseless insistence he won an election he lost.
How the Trump factor will play out may vary from state to state. But we can expect him to be, as ever, a magnet for media attention. He will instantly nationalize contests on which he concentrates. He will summon the us-versus-them reflex in voters across the political spectrum.
Perhaps the mere presence of Trump in the fall will be enough to bolster weaker GOP nominees and even save the Mourdocks and Akins of 2022. But there remains the possibility that the Jan. 6th investigation or developments elsewhere will make Trump more of an albatross for his party. It would indeed be an irony if he ultimately saved Biden from a shellacking of his own.