Tea party ten­ta­tively backs Trump

Activists see bil­lion­aire as con­ser­va­tives’ best hope

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY S.A. MILLER

Tea party activists refuse to claim Don­ald Trump as one of their own and swear he hasn’t be­come the de facto leader of the move­ment, but they still cheer on tea party mem­bers who rally be­hind the bil­lion­aire businessma­n to help keep him at the front of the race for the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion.

Mr. Trump doesn’t fit neatly into a tea party mold. His cam­paign isn’t built on small-gov­ern­ment and con­sti­tu­tion­al­ist ideals that are the foun­da­tion of the tea party move­ment that blos­somed in the United States in 2009.

Nev­er­the­less, top activists see the plain­spo­ken and com­bat­ive Mr. Trump as a Ron­ald Rea­gan or John Wayne fig­ure who they be­lieve can unite con­ser­va­tive vot­ers to win the White House and put the coun­try back on track.

“We don’t really view him as a true tea party can­di­date,” said Ken Crow, a tea party ac­tivist in Iowa who is sup­port­ing Mr. Trump. “He doesn’t have a history of be­ing real con­ser­va­tive on a lot of is­sues, but we do see him as prob­a­bly the only one who can save the coun­try. That’s why the sup­port level is what it is for him.”

Most tea party lead­ers named Sen. Ted Cruz as the tea party fa­vorite in the pres­i­den­tial race. And yet the move­ment hasn’t co­a­lesced be­hind the Texas Repub­li­can.

Mr. Trump edged out Mr. Cruz for tea party sup­port, 32 per­cent to 30 per­cent, in a Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity Poll ear­lier this month. It was an im­prove­ment for Mr. Cruz since Septem­ber, when Mr. Trump topped him among tea party mem­bers 37 per­cent to 19 per­cent.

Sim­i­lar to other re­cent sur­veys, the poll showed Mr. Trump lead­ing the race over­all, with 24 per­cent of sup­port among likely Repub­li­can vot­ers, and Mr. Cruz trail­ing in fourth place with 13 per­cent.

There also has been a sub­tle shift in the tea party’s fo­cus from is­sues such as re­peal­ing Oba­macare to ad­dress­ing il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, which co­in­cides with Mr. Trump making a crack­down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion a cor­ner­stone of his cam­paign.

The Quin­nip­iac Poll iden­ti­fied im­mi­gra­tion as the No. 2 is­sue for tea party vot­ers be­hind the econ­omy and jobs.

The solid tea party back­ing, and a flood of newly en­gaged con­ser­va­tive vot­ers that Mr. Trump has brought into the process, have kept him out in front since he en­tered the race in June.

Part of the rea­son Mr. Crow and other tea party vot­ers grav­i­tated to Mr. Trump is be­cause they view him as more electable than Mr. Cruz, who has been vil­i­fied by the left since his elec­tion to the U.S. Se­nate in the 2012 tea party wave.

“He is the man that most of the mem­ber­ship of the tea party rec­og­nizes as the one that can get elected and get the job done,” Mr. Crow said. “He’s John Wayne. He’s not go­ing to take crap off of any­body. … Amer­ica is go­ing, ‘Yeah, we fi­nally have John Wayne back.’”

“The suc­cess of the tea party comes from not hav­ing a leader,” said Sal Russo, founder and chief strate­gist of Tea Party Ex­press.

He said that Mr. Trump wasn’t lead­ing the move­ment but was ex­pand­ing the con­ser­va­tive base in a way sim­i­lar to Rea­gan, ap­peal­ing not to vot­ers’ ide­ol­ogy but to their hunger for a bet­ter life.

Re­call­ing how Rea­gan of­ten talked about how the Amer­i­can pub­lic doesn’t look at can­di­dates through an ide­o­log­i­cal lens but in terms of whether the can­di­date will lift up or bring down the qual­ity of life in Amer­ica, he said that Mr. Trump had the same po­lit­i­cal in­stincts and demon­strated it with his vow to “make Amer­ica great again.”

“Our vot­ers are not that much dif­fer­ent from the av­er­age voter. And so there’s not a big dif­fer­ence be­tween what you see in the na­tional polls and what you see among peo­ple who sup­port tea party ideas,” he said.

Mr. Russo pushed back against pun­dits who have pro­nounced that the tea party’s in­flu­ence is fad­ing, cit­ing polls such as a re­cent Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute sur­vey that found the num­ber of self-iden­ti­fied tea party mem­bers has dropped from 11 per­cent in 2010 to 6 per­cent to­day.

“Peo­ple point out how few peo­ple self-iden­tify as tea party. I would say just look at the elec­tion re­sults,” he said. “The fact that [vot­ers] are re­spond­ing to tea party is­sues and elect­ing more con­ser­va­tives than we’ve elected since 1926 says it is a po­tent and pow­er­ful move­ment, and it still is.”

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