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Colorado's Tea Party Lessons

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Recently, I blogged at about trouble in the Colorado Republican Party. I wrote that although the Tea Party mobilized Republicans at the base for the 2010 election and managed to create momentum sufficient to give the GOP a big victory, not all is well in elephant land. Colorado could be a lesson, and a warning for Iowa’s first in the nation test for 2012.

Saying he's "tired of the nuts who have no grasp of what the state party's role is," Colorado Republican Chairman Dick Wadhams won't run for re-election. He warned that if the Tea Party continues to high-jack the larger Republican agenda and veers more sharply to the right, the GOP stands a good chance of losing Colorado's "large unaffiliated voter base."

The question, of course, is whether the influence of the Tea Party Movement, which is steering the GOP to the right and into somewhat uncharted territory, will have the same effect in other states across the country.

In Iowa the party is clearly far more conservative and outspoken than it has been in the 40 years that I’ve observed and written about Iowa politics. Among the indicators of this much sharper conservative trend is the anti-government stance of many legislators, and even Gov. Branstad. This group has proposed almost no new revenue, and instead is seriously cutting funding for higher education, schools, law enforcement, social services, mental health, and many other areas of state government. Cutting spending in these areas will have an immediate impact on the lives of Iowans, and the reaction of voters when this reality hits home is yet to be seen. A week ago a brutal storm swept through the state and stranded drivers, many of whom had to wait for hours due to cuts in funding to state troopers, who are the primary rescue resource. There was a lot of hard breathing about that, and clearly people were very unhappy.

More significantly, conservative social issues such as abortion, gay rights, and same sex marriage have been front and center, and have sucked much of the oxygen out of the news coming from the state legislature in the first month of the 2011 session. For example, House Study Bill 50, also called the "Religious Conscience Protection Act", would give religious institutions, including charities and schools, exemption from providing marriage ceremony services to couples if the couple violates the institution’s "sincerely held religious beliefs." The bill would create the same exemptions to small businesses from providing goods and services pertaining to a marriage for the same reason.

The bill was shelved this week and will not be reported out of subcommittee. Nonetheless, the very existence of such a bill has opened a wider discussion on the limits, or lack thereof, of cultural conservative issues in Iowa and in the run up to the presidential caucuses.

Gay marriage, of course, made its mark earlier with the Iowa Supreme Court retention battle, which cost the chief justice and two of her colleagues their seats after the court ruled in Varnam v. Brien that same sex marriage is legal because it falls under the constitutions equal protection clause.

Some of my GOP contacts argue convincingly that they are standing on principles -- that they were elected to cut government and reestablish basic, traditional, values. They may have a point because in every state where voters were allowed to change the state constitution and ban gay marriage they have done so. There is also reasonably good data that folks are worried about high taxes, government over-spending, shortfalls in revenue caused by the deep recession, and government getting too big overall. However, all the polls show that Americans are less worried about gay marriage than jobs and the economy.

I have also spoken with many more traditional mainstream (i.e. less conservative) Republicans throughout the state about the condition of the party. Many of them feel utterly left out and, while they still retain their party membership, they seem to be voting for Democrats as well as for Republicans they deem acceptable. That leaves the no-party Independents, who are the largest block of voters in Iowa and the nation.

I’ve written voluminously on this topic and you know that Dr. Politics wants YOU to understand that they, the unaffiliated voters, are the kingmakers. However the swing vote (if they swing in large majorities) often determines who will win the election. In 2008 Barak Obama was the beneficiary. In 2010 they chose the GOP and served up a serious drubbing to the Democrats. In 2012 they will, once again, make the difference in the home stretch.

The Colorado case is informative because former Colorado GOP Chair Wadhams was concerned precisely about the fate of the party if it scares off independents.

Some polling data suggests that "no-party" folks are less conservative on the big social issues than Republicans. Moreover, there is a divide between the Christian conservative Republicans and the Tea Party folks who have been less interested nationally in social issues than in big government and spending. There is no string of reliable analysis yet as to how exactly the Tea Party, Christian Conservatives, Fiscal Conservatives, and what’s left of "moderate" (what we called Rockefeller or Country Club) Republicans divide out when you try to assign individual Republican elected officials to these categories.

Stay tuned for more a magnifying glass inspection of these issues within the GOP because they also have a lot to bear on the 2011 GOP straw poll in Ames, Iowa, and of course the 2012 Iowa Caucuses.