The Tea Party’s Not-So-Civil War

I met Karen Martin, a few days before New Year’s, at a cafe in Greenville, the hub of conservative politics in South Carolina. A 54-year-old refugee from the North Shore of Massachusetts, Martin is the lead organizer of the nearby Spartanburg Tea Party. Another Tea Party leader described her to me as a grown-up, and in fact, Martin turned out to be the kind of activist — ideology notwithstanding — who makes you feel hopeful about the new age of political uprising. She recounted how she burst into tears at the moment she realized, watching the news in 2008, that children growing up today wouldn’t have the economic opportunities that she did. She talked about how the Tea Party would need to mature and become more politically sophisticated in the years ahead. “I think the movement is just too young and too emotional,” she said.

Then our conversation turned to Mitt Romney, and Martin’s sunny countenance darkened. “I don’t know a single Tea Party person,” she said, slowly drawing out her words, “who does not despise Mitt Romney to the very core of their being.” I searched her face for levity or compassion, but found neither.

Discussions about the Tea Party often miss the extent to which the movement is loose and leaderless, a disjointed collection of local chapters and agendas. But if the phenomenon has an epicenter, that place is South Carolina. The state’s junior senator, Jim DeMint, is generally seen as the ideological forefather of the Tea Party, at least among elected officials. Tea Party activism propelled South Carolina’s 39-year-old governor, Nikki Haley, into office in 2010, along with four new Republican congressmen. There are, by some estimates, more than 50 autonomous Tea Party groups operating throughout the state, and according to a recent Winthrop University poll, 61 percent of South Carolinians say they approve of the movement — more than double the national figure, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

When you talk to activists around the state, as I did recently during a weeklong visit, you hear a lot about Romney’s record on health care, specifically, and about his ideological squishiness in general. But you also come to understand that the antipathy in Tea Party circles is more visceral. It’s a reaction to what they perceive as Romney’s synthetic and calculating persona, the sense that he somehow embodies everything that’s false and impenetrable about the parties in Washington. And so South Carolina, which will hold its presidential primary Jan. 21, is the place where two powerful political vehicles — Mitt Romney’s establishment-backed campaign and the three-year-old Tea Party insurgency — will collide full force. It’s here where Tea Party activists have expected to assert their influence over the party’s nominating process. For most of them, that means, above all, stopping Mitt.

The problem is that they’ve had a hard time settling on any obvious alternative to Romney, in a way that might transform the primary into a clear, binary choice. After a startling finish in Iowa, Rick Santorum seemed likely to steal significant votes from rivals like Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul and to fill the smallish void left by Michele Bachmann. But even as Santorum moved to consolidate conservative support, Tea Party organizers remained largely splintered among the rival campaigns. Their most influential leader, DeMint, declined to throw his support one way or the other. Haley, meanwhile, decided to endorse Romney in mid-December, a tactical decision that mostly drew derision from her Tea Party followers.

After months of confusion and bickering over whom to support, a kind of unraveling has occurred at the upper reaches of the movement, in some cases causing friendships to fray and giving rise to charges and countercharges on Facebook. Officers have resigned. Angry statements have been issued. Reputations have been damaged.

Martin herself remained neutral when we met, though she said she was giving Newt Gingrich a longer look. “I’ve been forced to recognize that he might be the best weapon we have,” she said, though she was far more enthusiastic about the tomato soup on her tray. Martin was confident that her fellow Tea Partiers would, in the months after the primary, repair whatever wounds have opened, but she had all but given up hope that they might agree on a candidate before the voting starts. “I’ve talked to so many Tea Party members who said, ‘I will never again hold my nose and vote for someone,’ ” she told me. “They will vote for the pure candidate who doesn’t have accomplishments and who’s just going to get chewed up.”

The group of influential Republicans who came up with the idea for a South Carolina primary back in the late 1970s had a few goals in mind. First, they were hoping to bolster the Republican presence in the State Legislature, where they were then a perennial minority. Second, they wanted to give the emerging Republican South — with its mix of evangelicals, military families and states rights’ conservatives — an earlier and more influential voice in the nominating process.

They could hardly have met with more success. Three decades later, South Carolina is as reliably red as a state can be. And when it came to picking a nominee, South Carolina emerged as the firewall for the new party establishment — more Southern and Western than the old, northeastern elites — that came into power with Ronald Reagan. In every presidential campaign since 1980, the presumed front-runner and establishment favorite has come into South Carolina bruised and imperiled, having lost in Iowa or New Hampshire. And in every instance, that candidate has managed to win the primary and go on to win the nomination.

This year, though, that dynamic has reversed itself, and South Carolina has become the only possible firewall for the conservative base that hopes to stop the front-runner. If the discontented activists who stormed the party in 2010 can’t find a way to take out the establishment’s chosen nominee here, of all places, then they might as well slap those Romney/Rubio bumper stickers on their S.U.V.’s now and get it over with.

There are plenty of reasons to think that Romney, in South Carolina, is eminently beatable. Four years ago, he wagered several million dollars in the state only to come in fourth. This time, Romney has only sporadically visited the state — much to the frustration of a lot of local politicos who might otherwise have jumped in on his behalf — and by year’s end he had only a handful of paid staff members in South Carolina.

But fortune has been kind to Romney in this campaign. Because the field took shape so slowly last year, and because no other candidate ever had the money needed to stage a truly national campaign, the contest never really made it to South Carolina in advance of the voting. Driving around the state, I saw few yard signs and heard no radio ads. Influential Republicans in Columbia note, with a hint of regret, that the personal malice and trickery that have so inflamed past primary campaigns — like the insidious rumor back in 2000 that had John McCain fathering an illegitimate black child — have been utterly lacking before next week’s vote. It’s as if South Carolina Republicans, having largely been bypassed by this year’s candidates, simply decided at some point to sit back, wait for Iowa and New Hampshire to finish voting, then pack the entire primary campaign into 10 days of mayhem.

What all of this means is that Romney hasn’t missed much action by skipping the state up to this point, and with support for his more ideological rivals there so fragmented, he could easily win with a relatively low percentage of the vote. Four years ago, McCain stole a victory in South Carolina and cemented his hold on the nomination, winning with only 33 percent of the vote because Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson and Romney split most of what remained. There’s a good chance Romney will do the same.

It’s generally assumed that a big part of Romney’s problem four years ago had to do with his Mormonism, which presented a hurdle for South Carolina’s sizable bloc of evangelical Christians. None of the Republicans with whom I talked, however, felt that it was much of a factor now. “If you want to debate whether Mormonism is a form of orthodox Christianity in South Carolina, then there is no debate here — it is not,” said Oran Smith, who runs Palmetto Family, a group that lobbies on behalf of Christian conservatives. “But is that important to his doing well in South Carolina? No.” In fact, Smith told me, “I think there are a lot of people who are for Romney and who are just afraid to admit it right now.”

He also acknowledged what other Republican leaders had been telling me — that on the whole, religious conservatives, who once dominated South Carolina politics through the intervention of powerful figures and institutions like Pat Robertson and Bob Jones University, are just less engaged this time and are wielding less influence over the process. Leaning back on the upholstered couch in his office, Smith, dressed in a cream turtleneck sweater and black-and-green-plaid pants, hypothesized that the lapse in political urgency might have something to do with a corresponding drop in millennial angst.

“There are a lot of folks who believe that we are really in the end times,” he told me, “and the election of Obama was a signal that the end times were here.” But after Republicans came roaring back in 2010, he said, a lot of those conservatives decided that maybe the apocalypse was still a way off, after all.

Instead, the energy this year is with the Tea Party, whose members represent an amalgam of disparate groups — Christian conservatives, libertarians, disgruntled independents. At various moments over the past year, activists here, as in the rest of the country, found themselves enthralled with a rotating cast of candidates: Bachmann, Perry, Herman Cain, Gingrich and now Santorum. (“I expected by this time for Rick Perry to just be kicking fanny in South Carolina,” Smith told me. “He was going to ride in and lasso South Carolina, and he wasn’t going to be stopped.”) By the time I visited the state, the movement was still deeply divided among several far-from-perfect candidates.

All the activists I talked to agreed that if there was any one person who might have been able to break through the clutter and channel all of this energy behind a single candidate, it was Jim DeMint. “None of them impress me at all,” Karen Martin said of the Republican candidates, “but if Jim DeMint were to walk into the room, I’d just start crying.” Having endorsed Romney four years earlier, DeMint pointedly refused to do so again, which was seen as something of a statement in itself. But the senator didn’t find any of the other candidates inspiring enough to warrant an endorsement, either. In other words, he felt pretty much the same way as his most ardent constituents. It seemed very unlikely, though not impossible, that DeMint would insert himself into the primary before the votes were cast.

Absent some direction from DeMint, Tea Party leaders in South Carolina had settled into a standoff. Everyone agreed that it would be better for the movement to coalesce behind a single candidate who could topple Romney. But everyone seemed to be waiting for the moment when all the activists working for other campaigns would realize that his or her candidate was clearly the one they should rally behind. “It’s tough,” Mike Vasovski, who is Ron Paul’s state chairman, told me. “How do you compromise yourself if you’re really committed to someone?”

Vasovski is an affable family doctor and a Tea Party activist in rural Aiken County, near the Georgia border. When I met him and his wife, Cindy, at their favorite pizza place, he told me that Paul was the first candidate for whom he ever worked, and he likened his passion — the campaign was taking up about 40 hours of his week — to the way liberals must have felt about Robert Kennedy. He was getting ready to pile a bunch of volunteers into his truck the next morning and drive the 1,000 miles to Iowa.

I asked Vasovski whether there were any other candidates he found intriguing, just as a backup.

“Huntsman is interesting,” he said. It’s hard to find a Republican candidate less like Paul than Jon Huntsman, and the puzzlement must have shown on my face. “He understands China,” Vasovski said, as if this explained the disconnect.

I wondered if any of the other, more clearly conservative candidates might interest him — maybe Gingrich or Santorum?

Vasovski thought for a moment. “No,” he said. “Not in the least.”

As in other states, the story of the Tea Party in South Carolina is largely the story of newcomers to the political process, people who harbored conservative views but had never before felt moved to become involved in politics, or in some cases even to vote. In the months that followed the initial rallies in 2009 (at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, about 10,000 people came out to vent), organizers of the various chapters forged close friendships through e-mail and Facebook. It’s a familiar narrative, one I heard frequently while writing about leftist blogs during the Bush years and again while spending time with the founder of the Utah Tea Party in 2010. The modern, online movement is about more than politics; it’s about building community too, which is why it’s probably not a coincidence that several of the most involved activists I met had recently moved to South Carolina from someplace else.

But South Carolina isn’t just another state with pent-up fury at the status quo. It’s also an early and crucial primary state, and so it was inevitable that the Tea Party movement there would attract the attention of Republican candidates looking to gain an organizational foothold. In the same way that big-time contributors and evangelical activists had always been highly sought as recruits by the various campaigns, so now were the Tea Party volunteers in demand. “All of the campaigns, in one form or another, except for Romney’s, have contacted me,” Karen Martin said matter-of-factly, as if we were discussing cellphone carriers offering special deals.

The most aggressive candidates throughout the fall were Bachmann and Gingrich. As far back as 2009, Gingrich’s Washington-based advocacy group, American Solutions, employed a Tea Party liaison, a 26-year-old Connecticut native named Adam Waldeck, to connect Gingrich to organizers around the country. In October, Waldeck moved down to South Carolina full time to assume control of Gingrich’s statewide operation, working out of a Greenville strip plaza. He soon put three Tea Party organizers on his payroll, a move that caused some alarm inside the movement.

Still, things remained mostly copacetic until the endorsements started. In general, there was widespread disagreement inside and among the various chapters about whether to endorse candidates. And then in December, a vocal Tea Party chapter in Myrtle Beach voted to endorse Gingrich. This might not have been so notable, except that the treasurer of the Myrtle Beach chapter was being paid by the Gingrich campaign. Several of Bachmann’s backers soon issued a statement accusing Gingrich’s Tea Party supporters of having betrayed the cause. Activists quickly chose sides. Bachmann inflamed the situation by echoing the allegations in an interview with CNN, suggesting that “money is changing hands” in South Carolina’s Tea Party.

“I took personal offense to that,” Allen Olson, wearing a khaki Tea Party hat and a gray Tea Party polo shirt, said when we met at a steakhouse on the outskirts of Columbia. Olson is a carpenter who moved here from Milwaukee about a decade ago, and served as chairman of the Columbia Tea Party before resigning last fall so he could endorse Gingrich. He recalled bitterly that he had once spoken to a high-school civics class taught by Kelly Payne, a Tea Party leader who was working for Bachmann and who had signed her name to the allegations. “There’s no way I’ll be able to work with Kelly Payne again,” he said, shaking his head in disgust.

I asked if he had lost other friends in the movement because of divisions over the campaign.

“Not really, because if they’re doing this stuff, then they were never really friends to begin with,” Olson said. “I’m losing acquaintances.” He sipped glumly from his Bud Light. “The only thing I want to do is just to cut all the bickering, realize it’s not going to be a single voting bloc and just stop burning bridges.”

Like some other Tea Party leaders I talked to, Olson posited that all of this started with Republican consultants, who were purposely infiltrating and dividing the movement. You could make a solid case that South Carolina is where the modern culture of the political consultant was born; Republican politics here have been heavily influenced by a generation of well-paid strategists and dirty tricksters, going back to Harry Dent, an architect of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” and Lee Atwater, who was most famous for devising the Willie Horton ad that helped sink Michael Dukakis. Tea Party activists generally blame consultants for having bled the party of its conservative convictions. “They call themselves conservatives, but they’re not — they’re Lee Atwater-type Republicans,” Olson told me at one point, when discussing the party’s establishment politicians. When I asked what it was about Atwater, who played a significant role in moving the party viciously to the right in the 1980s, that seemed insufficiently conservative, he replied, “The way I understand it, he was more interested in numbers than in principle.”

Olson and other Tea Party adherents were now focusing their ire on Wesley Donehue, a Columbia-based consultant who advised Bachmann’s ill-fated campaign and who was the first to publicly raise the issue of Gingrich paying Tea Party members. Clearly, the Tea Party leaders said, Donehue had been whispering nefariously in Bachmann’s ear and was trying to turn real conservatives against one another.

Not surprisingly, Donehue rejected this theory. “That’s stupid,” he told me when we talked a few days before Bachmann flamed out in Iowa and left the race. “I’m just calling out the Tea Parties who have strayed from what the Tea Party believes in.” Then he added, for good measure, “Newt Gingrich is the antithesis of everything the Tea Party stands for.”

In fact, I had little doubt that Donehue had set out to do exactly the thing that political consultants often try to do, which is to “drive a wedge” between an opposing candidate and his potential supporters. But as I talked to Tea Party activists involved in the imbroglio, it seemed there was something else going on, too. The Tea Party leaders were getting a sense of what it was like to be real players in the process, and some of them, however sincere their beliefs, found themselves drawn to the idea of having the very same back-room influence that they criticized in the consultants. Like an earlier generation of Ralph Reeds and Gary Bauers, they were transforming themselves from activists into advisers and even candidates, and this was bound to strain a movement whose entire identity was based on disdaining the establishment.

“You’re starting to see some of the Tea Party folks getting into that realm, becoming political consultants,” Bill Connor, a Tea Party activist who’s backing Santorum, told me when I visited his home in Orangeburg. An Army Ranger who was the senior American adviser to local forces in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Connor looks a bit like Roger Clemens and projects a stern sobriety. “Being around politics, it’s like a drug,” he said. “People love having their name in the paper, getting attention, having people suck up to them. And that’s happening with the Tea Party.”

I got some sense of what Connor was talking about when I called Gerri McDaniel, treasurer of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party. McDaniel was singled out by Donehue; she took a paid position with Gingrich just a few weeks before her chapter voted to endorse him.

“You know Rick Perry’s saying, when he first came to South Carolina, that the Tea Party was the ‘boots on the ground’ in South Carolina?” McDaniel asked me. I told her I did not, which seemed to surprise her. “That’s my saying,” she said. “I’m the one who said, ‘The Tea Party is the boots on the ground.’ They took that from me.”

McDaniel went on to tell me that she had not taken the process of making an endorsement lightly and that every one of the candidates had taken the time to meet her. “I had quite a few candidates who wanted me on board with them,” McDaniel said. “I chose the candidate who I thought could turn this country around. It wouldn’t have mattered if I was paid or not.”

McDaniel said she was trying to ignore all the controversy. “You have to keep your head up,”she said. “Just don’t get pulled into areas that can change you as a person.”

The Capitol in Columbia was closed the week after Christmas, but I found Curtis Loftis, South Carolina’s treasurer, puttering around his office in a blue oxford shirt and khakis. The 53-year-old Loftis, heir to a local pest-control business, never ran for office before 2010, when he decided to take on the incumbent treasurer and caught the same Tea Party wave that swept Haley into the more august office across the hall. He’s now serving as Romney’s campaign chairman in the state. That both officials endorsed Romney would seem to signal some kind of coordinated decision at the highest levels of the Tea Party leadership in South Carolina, but such is the danger of thinking about the Tea Party as a single, cohesive entity. It’s well known in Columbia that Haley and Loftis are disinclined to stand in the same room together, much less coordinate their political decisions.

As we sat in leather armchairs on either side of a coffee table, Loftis explained to me that, now that he was actually serving in elective office, he had come to understand how important it was to choose a candidate who could actually do the job in question, rather than one who said all the right things about slashing government and all of that.

“Before, when I was strictly looking at it as a partisan from the outside, I could understand exactly why people are working themselves up over these other candidates,” Loftis said. “And these people who are actively engaged in such heated debates — they’re my brothers and sisters, you know? I get them, and I understand them, and I appreciate them.” But, he added, “I’m just not interested in this ongoing conversation about first principles and this heated rhetoric.”

According to Loftis, Romney was the only Republican running with real expertise. “Every time I’m with him, I bring him a financial problem from my desk and let him solve it,” Loftis said, motioning toward the accordion files stacked on his table. At another point, he guiltily described for me marching Romney through a roomful of contributors at a Loftis fund-raiser: “I felt like he was an old mule that I had ridden hard and put up wet.” I found myself imagining how stoked Mitt Romney must be to see Curtis Loftis pop up on his schedule.

Loftis told me he liked a lot of the other candidates too. “I love Rick Santorum,” he said. “I spent a good amount of time with Rick. He’s a good guy.” But neither Santorum nor any other of Romney’s rivals, he said, was going to be able to win in pivotal, more moderate states like Ohio and Florida. And Loftis seemed confident that as Primary Day approached, more and more of the Tea Party members who supported him in the treasurer’s race — maybe even those who angrily canceled fund-raisers after they heard he was going to work for Romney — would get their heads around that reality.

“If you want four more years of Barack, then go off on a flight of fancy and vote your constitutional conscience,” Loftis said. “But if you want to stop Barack Obama, Mitt Romney is your guy.”

Of course, most ardent Tea Party activists would tell you that this kind of calculation is exactly what drove them out of their homes and into parking lots and public squares in the first place. The way they see it, “big-government conservatives” and “crony capitalists” have been doing whatever it takes to get elected and re-elected for decades, while Republicans in Washington caved on the small-government principles that were supposed to guide the party. For a Romney supporter to preach pragmatism and electability only confirms for your average Tea Party member everything he or she already suspected about the candidate. You might as well try selling an Escalade to Greenpeace.

And yet, it’s precisely this aversion to political calculation that may relegate the movement to the margins, at least as far as the 2012 nomination is concerned. The pragmatic thing, after all, would have been for the various Tea Party leaders to coalesce around a single conservative candidate who might beat Romney in South Carolina. But such machinations would have been antithetical to the decentralized, uncompromising nature of the movement. Instead, activists followed their own impulses and their own agendas, the result being that they may yet find themselves flattened by a less energized but more cohesive establishment.

It’s not as if they can’t see this. In the days after the Iowa vote and just before New Hampshire, as polls showed Romney surging in South Carolina, activists in the state seemed ready to embrace Santorum in hopes of turning the primary into a referendum on Romney, rather than a multiple-choice test with several right answers. “My sense is there will be a very large coalescing of forces around Rick Santorum,” Stephen Brown, a conservative activist and Bachmann supporter, told me on the day his candidate withdrew from the race. “I think he’s going to be the guy.”

When I called Karen Martin, though, she sounded less sure. “I’ve had some e-mails from Tea Party people today saying, ‘Look, can we just put our emotions aside and get behind the candidate who has the best path to victory?’ ” she said. “But I just don’t know if that’s possible.”

I asked her which candidate had the best path to victory. There was a pause on the line.

“And that’s the question,” she finally said.

This article, “The Tea Party’s Not-So-Civil War,” originally appeared at The New York Times Magazine.