RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Tea Party challenge Senator Hatch faces shows that the movement still wields influence. Kate Zernike covers the Tea Party as a reporter for The New York Times. She's also the author of "Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America."
We asked her to describe how the Tea Party's impact has changed since the movement began.
KATE ZERNIKE: Clearly 2010 was a high point. I mean, four in 10 voters who went to the polls on Election Day for the midterms in 2010 defined themselves as Tea Party supporters. So that's huge, 40 percent, when you consider that the movement had really only started in 2009. But I think it was always bound to be a movement that had more impact in the midterms, because it is a small group. Midterm elections have smaller turnout and, therefore, any small group is bound to be more influential.
So I think it was always expected that a presidential race, where there are more people coming to the polls, that this relatively small group would not have as big an impact.
MARTIN: I'm wondering how you have seen the relationship between mainstream conservatives and the Tea Party change, especially the more radical elements of the Tea Party. It was a tense relationship at the beginning. How has that dynamic changed since 2010?
ZERNIKE: Well, I would say the tense relationship was really between the mainstream Republicans, not necessarily mainstream conservatives. Tea Partiers really were conservatives or are conservatives. And they felt that the Republican Party wasn't conservative enough for them. So I think there was great tension but there was also sort of an institutional problem. They felt that the Republican Party had shut them out, had become too elite, had become sort of just another institution that was very remote to them.
I think the Republican Party got very spooked by the Tea Party victories in 2010. And in some ways, it sort of paralyzed them; that they didn't know quite what to do. And I think a lot of them went along with this notion that they couldn't compromise with anyone in Washington. So that's one reason why I say that as much as the Tea Party appears to be down, they're not out, because in many ways they have changed the conservation.
They have made this focus as, you know, you could even say an obsession with debt reduction. They've made that kind of the center of the debate in Washington. And it's now Republicans leading the charge. So, you could argue that Tea Party has really shaped the Republican Party.
MARTIN: So you say they changed the debate. They're down but not out. But what is their role moving forward? I mean if Mitt Romney is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, what role will the Tea Party have in the general election? I mean, there is no love lost between the former Massachusetts governor and the Tea Party.
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ZERNIKE: I think that's true. In fact, FreedomWorks which is the group run by Dick Armey, in Washington they were very influential in sort of incubating the Tea Party in its early days. And they were very active in ousting Bob Bennett in Utah and they've been working in other races across the country. The day that Mitt Romney put out his 59-Point Economic Plan, they put out 59 reasons why Mitt Romney shouldn't be the nominee. So I sort of wonder what a group like that does.
I think what that group in particular will do is focus on some of the more local races, and not spend so much on the presidential race. But in general, I think most Tea Partiers really don't like President Obama and so are more motivated by that than they are in the antipathy of Mitt Romney. They may come out to vote for him but they might not go door-to-door for him. They might not be as enthusiastic about it.
MARTIN: Since you've looked at the Tea Party so much and extensively, what do you think its staying power is beyond this election? I mean, is this just a party that was right for this moment? And is this something that's going to be part of our politics for a really long time?
ZERNIKE: Well, I think what the Tea Party did was change the debate. And so, even at the local level now, you hear much more talk about debt reduction. You hear local citizens who are, you know, suddenly very interested in their local town budget.
I think the Tea Party was of a moment and that moment was the recession - the Great Recession. And I think if we had not had that recession there might have been some opposition to President Obama, but it would not have been shaped into this huge force we now know as the Tea Party.
I always sort of believed that what would happen to them, they would become another interest group. And really that's - they actually, you know, many Tea Party leaders said that that was what they were after. They looked at MoveOn.org and said we want to be the MoveOn.org of the right. We want to be that interest group that really kind of keeps the party honest. So I do think the fact that a lot of these presidential candidates were trying to appeal to the Tea Party vote suggests again that the Tea Party has had some staying power.
MARTIN: New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, speaking with us from our New York studios. Thanks so much, Kate.
ZERNIKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.