Growing Tea With Subnational Roots: Tea Party Affiliation, Factionalism, and GOP Politics in State Legislatures

AuthorCharles Hunt,Stella M. Rouse,Kristen Essel
Date01 March 2022
Published date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211041150
The influence of the Tea Party movement in contemporary
American politics remains a curiosity. While much has been
written about the Tea Party as a grass roots movement, less is
known about its role and influence within party politics and
inside legislative institutions. This is important because The
Tea Party Caucus and its close successors, such as the
Freedom Caucus,1 have purposefully disrupted the govern-
ing capacity of the Republican Party and have potentially
threatened the party’s long-term viability. At the national
level, this disruption was often on display throughout the
presidency of Barack Obama2 and is cited as a factor that
helped pave the way for the election of Donald Trump in
2016 and his eventual defeat in 2020 (Ball, 2016; Gervais &
Morris, 2018; Kabaservice, 2020). However, the discord has
also played out in state legislatures. Take for example the
Texas legislature. In 2017, the Tea Party-aligned House
Freedom Caucus, comprised of 12 Republican members,
became known for their “highly vocal and confrontational
tactics to challenge House Speaker Joe Strauss and other
mainstream Republicans” (Montgomery, 2017). In one
prominent case, the House Freedom Caucus was able to hold
up a “sanctuary cities” bill until they successfully amended it
with provisions allowing local law enforcement officers to
question people about their immigration status during traffic
stops (Montgomery, 2017). Members of the caucus viewed
the revisions made to the “sanctuary cities” bill as an exam-
ple of how the caucus influenced legislative decisions within
the Republican-led Texas House (Montgomery, 2017).
Despite its status as the most significant conservative
political movement in the 21st century (Gervais & Morris,
2018), little is known about the underlying characteristics of
officeholders who affiliate with the Tea Party. This reflects a
lingering disagreement in both the scholarly literature and in
the broader culture about the true intentions of the Tea Party,
and what its influence indicates about the modern Republican
Party. Is the Tea Party little more than an ideological move-
ment, intent only on shifting the Republican Party farther to
the right? Or is it a truly factional movement with more
dynamic characteristics, with the goal of destabilizing or
destroying the GOP? We find evidence that the latter is a
much truer depiction of the Tea Party; one that is reflective of
factional movements. The two party system in the U.S.
forces factions to infiltrate one of the two major parties rather
than operate independently as a third party where they would
gain little influence or electoral momentum (Blum, 2020).
The Tea Party is indeed an ideologically extreme movement,
but its emergence has been equally fueled by anti-establish-
ment, anti-government sentiment that transcends ideology.
APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211041150American Politics ResearchRouse et al.
1University of Maryland, College Park, USA
2Boise State University, ID, USA
3Brown University, Providence, RI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Charles Hunt, Boise State University, 1910 West University Drive, Boise,
ID 83725-0001, USA.
Growing Tea With Subnational Roots:
Tea Party Affiliation, Factionalism, and
GOP Politics in State Legislatures
Stella M. Rouse1, Charles Hunt2, and Kristen Essel3
Most research has examined the influence of the Tea Party as a social movement or loose organization, but less is known
about its influence within legislative party politics, especially at the state level. In this paper, we argue that in this context the
Tea Party is primarily an intraparty faction that has caused significant divisions inside the Republican Party. Using an original
dataset of legislators across 13 states for the years 2010 to 2013, we examine legislator and district-level characteristics
that predict state legislators’ affiliation with the Tea Party. Our results reveal that in some respects legislators affiliated with
the Tea Party are a far-right wing of the Republican Party. However, by other measures that capture anti-establishment
political sentiment, Tea Party affiliated legislators comprise a factional group attempting to transform the Party in ways that
go beyond ideology. These findings have important implications for the future prospects of the GOP.
factions, parties, Republican Party, state legislatures, Tea Party
2022, Vol. 50(2) 242 –254

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