The tea party isn’t much of a factor in Tuesday’s Massachusetts Senate election, a stark contrast with 2010, when a similar contest jolted the nascent movement into national prominence.
Gone this year is the enthusiasm from the grass-roots movement that propelled barely known Scott Brown to victory three years ago. Brown, the first Republican to win a Massachusetts Senate seat in 38 years, was hailed as a new kind of politician, someone who harnessed the energy of this new political crusade to beat a powerful Democrat, state Attorney General Martha Coakley.
Since then, though, the movement has stumbled. Though it’s been effective in more conservative states, it’s gained little traction in so-called blue states, limiting its effectiveness as a nationwide force.
In Massachusetts, Democrat Edward Markey, a veteran Boston-area congressman, has comfortable leads in polls over Republican Gabriel Gomez, a businessman and former Navy SEAL, for the seat that John Kerry vacated when he became the secretary of state earlier this year. A Suffolk University poll released Monday put Markey ahead by 52-42 percent.
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Gomez has distanced himself from more extreme conservative views, and polls find that support for the tea party in the state has waned.
Tea party activists are unenthusiastic about Gomez. Though they prefer him to Markey, “I wouldn’t say the tea party is out there working hard, campaigning for Gomez,” said Christine Morabito, the president of the Greater Boston Tea Party.
In Massachusetts, traditionally a state that embraces liberal to moderate Democrats and Republicans, Gomez is trying to paint himself as a comfortable fit.
Markey has tried to tar him with tea party ties, but Gomez told ABC News, “He wishes he was running against a tea party Republican. I am independent, and I’m Republican and I’m proud of it. But I’m going to represent all the people in Massachusetts.”
In 2010, the politics was very different.
“There was not as clear an ideological definition of the tea party as there is now,” said Steve Koczela, the president of MassINC Polling Group, an independent Boston organization. “It was seen as a group that represented dissatisfaction with the government and was not identified with a political party.”
Not anymore. Tea party activists became closely identified with conservative Republican causes, and they helped elect dozens of party candidates to Congress in 2010 and 2012. But they also were instrumental in toppling popular mainstream Republican figures, leading in some cases to Democratic victories.
They also became more identified with ideological extremes. When supporters rallied in front of the Capitol last week, many held signs demanding President Barack Obama’s impeachment. Speakers included conservative heroes, such as commentator Glenn Beck and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who urged abolishing the Internal Revenue Service.
Tea party groups say the Massachusetts election isn’t emblematic of their troubles, and revelations that the IRS targeted tea party organizations for special scrutiny have helped re-energize the faithful.
“It probably says more about Gomez than the tea party,” Sal Russo, a co-founder and the chief strategist of the Tea Party Express, said of the candidate’s difficulties.His group was an early backer of Brown, and its unorthodox strategy was hailed as a blueprint for the new politics.
With ads in the state expensive, Brown’s tea party supporters advertised on national cable channels and drew a national following. People were encouraged to travel to Massachusetts to help him, and if they stayed home, to make calls.
This year, the tea party in Massachusetts and the nation has different kinds of challenges.
Foremost is its relationship to the Republican Party. There’s tension with many in the party establishment, which is trying hard to be more inclusive and less ideological. Many party regulars remain annoyed that tea party-backed candidates who blocked or thwarted the nominations of mainstream Republicans in recent years arguably cost the party control of the U.S. Senate.
Gomez’s possible fate in Massachusetts, tea party activists said, should be “a message to the Republican Party” that its candidates can’t act too much like Democrats, said Niger Innis, the chief strategist for TheTeaParty.net.
Anyone who thinks the movement is fading should look to Virginia, where two strong tea-party favorites top the ballot, Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli and running mate E.W. Jackson.
“They’re full partners in the tea party movement,” Innis said.
The movement also is attempting to recast itself as a sophisticated political force.
“We’ve become less of a protest movement,” Morabito said. “People aren’t seeing us as much, because we’re doing more grass-roots work.”
The tea party faces a big test this summer, as it might mobilize around several incendiary issues: immigration, the IRS’s targeting of tea party groups and National Security Agency snooping. But none is likely to elect another Republican senator in Massachusetts.
“Is the tea party coming back a bit? Possibly,” said Koczela, who cited upticks in favorable figures in recent national polling.
But in states such as Massachusetts, where it once made inroads, it’s a long shot.
“The tea party in 2013 is not the tea party Scott Brown tapped into in 2010,” Koczela said.