The Tea Party is a somewhat vague term that has been used for far right conservatives for the past ten years. It sprung up quite suddenly, during 2010, in the first mid-term election. In some ways it is similar to Gingrich's Contract With America. This contract was a list of promises made by Republicans in the 1994 elections, and influenced Gingrich and the Republican House for large parts of the Clinton administration. It was a conservative reaction to the electing of a Democratic President in a tough economy. Both of these movements managed to help Republicans regain the House. However, there is a crucial difference. While the Contract With America was organized and under direct leadership of Gingrich, the Tea Party has no such leadership or organization, there are many potential leaders, and it is a very grassroots organization that is often organized locally.
Some of the long term causes of the rise of the Tea Party are cultural changes in America. According to Gallup, In 1996, support for Gay marriage was 27%, while in 2010 it had risen to 44%. Legalization of Recreational Marijuana rose from 25% in 1996 to 44% in 2010. The percent of Americans who were Christian (Protestant, non-specific or Catholic) was 83% in 1994, and had fallen to 74% in 2010. In 2010, with 81% of people identifying with the Tea Party being Christian, and only 18% in favor of Gay marriage, the Tea Party became more distinct from the general electorate.
Obama's election and the worsening economy were immediate causes to the rise of the Tea Party. Since Tea Party voters tend to be on the far right of the political spectrum, the election of a leftist President would clearly cause a backlash. This was seen in 1994 with the rise of Gingrich following Clinton's election. Additionally, a poor economy also likely caused the Tea Party to gain momentum. The unemployment rate in the U.S. as of January 2009 was 7.8%. It rose to 10% by October 2009, and stayed very high throughout the entire election season. In November 2010, it stood at 9.8%. The poor economy hurt the President's approval rating. In late January of 2009 President Obama's approval rating stood at 67%. By the week of the mid-term elections, it had dropped to 45%. The unpopularity likely sparked the rise of the Tea Party.
However the middle 2011 saw the debt ceiling debate. Many in the Tea Party threatened not to raise the debt ceiling if they did not get the spending decreases and tax cuts they wanted, If the debt ceiling were not increased, the U.S. would default on its loans, likely leading to global reccession. As the year went further along, fear that this might actually happen increased. Real GDP growth fell from a good 3% in the 2nd quarter of 2011, to a slow 1.5% in the third quarter of that year. A deal was made, but it was only a short term fix.
In the 2012 election, there were several Tea Party candidates who were at one point front runners in the polls nationwide: Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachman, and Herman Cain. However, none would be successful, as Mitt Romney was elected the Republican Candidate. Never the less, the prominence of Tea Party candidates showed their rise in influence.
Not long after the 2012 election was over, the U.S. faced the possibility of the fiscal cliff. This became a major concern in large part because of the Tea Party's refusal to pass a bill preventing it unless certain conditions were met. It was avoided, but taxes on the top income tax bracket did rise from 35% to 39.6%. However, sequestration did go into effect. Although it did not effect the economy as badly as predicted, it did have an significant effect on U.S. GDP.
From October 1st to October 16th parts of the government shutdown. The Tea Party refused to avoid this shutdown unless the Affordable Care Act was defunded. There was also a threat of going over the debt ceiling, which would have required the government to stop spending and/or raise taxes by over 500 billion dollars in the course of the next fiscal year. This could have had catastrophic effects on the U.S. economy. However, this was narrowly averted, as the debt ceiling was raised and the government shutdown was ended. In the immediate aftermath of the end of the crisis, Tea Party approval stood at an all time low of 28%, while Republicans approval stood tab a paltry 30%
Karl Rove's American crossroads began to go against the Tea Party. The Tea Party suffered several electoral defeats in the primaries. Senate candidate House Speaker of North Carolina Thom Tillis, eight term house incumbent Mike Simpson of Missouri, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky all crushed their Tea Party opponents with huge margins of victory. In Georgia, the most right wing candidates for Senate also lost. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina also prevailed to avoid a runoff. The eventual winner of the Georgia primary, David Purdue, was a business friendly non-Tea Party candidate.
The Tea Party may be down, but it will not go quietly. A startling example of this is when Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, lost to Dave Brat by a significant margin.
Despite this, the outlook for the Tea Party looks bleak. Tea Party support is at an all time low and it has several electoral losses. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie, non-tea party candidates, all have a good chances of winning the 2016 nomination, while Rand Paul's popularity has largely been confined to that of the Tea Party and of Libertarians. In all likely hood, the importance of the Tea Party will continue to decline, but it will continue to produce electoral upsets along the way.
Tea Party candidates Ted Cruise and Rand Paul are considered contenders for the 2016 nomination.