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Analysis: What's Next for Michigan Tea Parties?

Tax Day Tea Party rallies were held across the state and nation last week, with mixed results in turnout. Regardless of the exact attendance, the movement represents a potent new force on the American political landscape. Its leaders and members are currently focused on changing the composition of Congress in November, but their real challenge will be finding ways after the election to pressure the political class — especially Republicans — to stick to the fiscal restraint promises made in the heat of the campaign.

Evidence that the Tea Party is something the politicians can’t ignore is seen in a Rasmussen poll showing that 24 percent of U.S. voters now say they consider themselves a part of the movement, and 40 percent have a favorable view of it. Among Republican voters, the favorable numbers rise to 70 percent. A CBS/New York Times poll pegs the "identify with" figure at 18 percent, which probably defines the lower boundary.

In the short term, the movement has set its sights on expelling from office anyone with a D after their name this November. Recent history suggests that this is not entirely irrational: In the 1990s, divided government under a Democratic president and Republican Congress created a "virtuous gridlock" in which neither side would go along with the other's spending ambitions, with the result that for several years there was actually a federal budget surplus.

Local Tea Party leaders are mostly reinforcing that "clean house in November message," but how seriously they and the movement are taken by the political class will be determined by their response to several challenges before and after the 2010 general election.

The first challenge involves primary battles for open seats in Congress and the Legislature. In Michigan, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Congressional districts are up for grabs. The Republican primaries in those districts feature long-time GOP political careerists competing against newcomers whose personas and platforms are arguably more attractive to the Tea Party base. The fractious, disorganized nature of the movement could prove its Achilles heel if a failure to unite behind a single candidate means these contests are swept by politicians viewed by its members as system-serving "RINOs."

Also in Michigan, a "Health Care Freedom Act" constitutional amendment petition drive is underway to prohibit an "individual mandate" to buy health insurance. To make it onto the November ballot, volunteers must collect 390,000 valid signatures by July 5, a huge but not insurmountable challenge. The measure is closely identified with the Tea Party, and rightly or wrongly, its success or failure will be seen as a test of the entire movement’s political power, and the depth of post-passage opposition to ObamaCare.

The most consequential long-term challenge local Tea Party leaders face is providing ways for their members to accomplish the critical task that begins after the November election: holding those newly elected or re-elected Republican (or fiscally conservative "Blue-Dog" Democrat) lawmakers' feet to the fire on the issues that created the movement.

The demand for such accountability measures will be strong, because Tea Party members correctly sense that while changing the balance of power in Washington will halt further excesses by the current administration and Congress, just electing more Republicans will not solve our nation’s problems.

For example, giving Republicans all the Washington marbles in 2012 — Presidency, Senate and House of Representatives — might lead to the repeal of federalized health care and its replacement by health care reforms that may be more free-market-friendly and patient-centered. But that’s not guaranteed, and this arrangement is also the one under which from 2001 to 2006 the nation experienced a massive expansion of spending, earmarks, congressional corruption, the federalization of education, a huge Medicare entitlement expansion and other dysfunctions that laid the groundwork for the Tea Party movement.

Some organizations and leaders have already begun working on accountability-generating mechanisms. For example, earlier this year, the "Common Sense in Government" group led by Wendy Day of Howell organized a door-to-door "lit drop" in the district of a Republican state representative championing a gas tax increase, distributing a flyer exposing his tax-hike efforts.

Late last year, the same group also delivered "robocalls" into households in the district of another Republican who had sponsored a bill to divert $6.6 million in state and federal Medicaid dollars into the coffers of the SEIU by allowing the "stealth unionization" of thousands of home health workers. According to Day, the bill may have been introduced as a payoff to the union for its endorsement and support of another union-friendly Republican in a special state Senate election.

Such direct action in their districts really gets the attention of popularity-obsessed lawmakers. When they find themselves targeted, these politicians may complain about it to all their colleagues, who quietly resolve to not let this happen to themselves. Modest, low-cost campaigns of this nature — analogous to the "asymmetric warfare" used by insurgents in guerrilla warfare — can therefore generate real changes in the behavior of the entire political class.

This publication, Michigan Capitol Confidential, has a similar goal of improving accountability by educating the public about votes in which their lawmakers appear to be serving the system rather than the people — or at least are behaving in a manner contrary to the image of themselves they promote back in their districts. While the publication doesn’t "target" individual legislators, it does "name names" in the form of complete roll call tallies on particular votes, and gives readers contact information so they can let their own representatives know how they feel about these particular votes.

Although education reform is not a Tea Party issue per se, Michigan's Education Action Group is doing political work at the local school district level similar to Common Sense in Government’s actions focused on the Legislature, for example, targeting school board members who demonstrate confusion regarding whether they represent school employees or taxpayers.

The field is wide open for many more such accountability campaigns. Those Tea Party leaders and groups who succeed in the long term will be the ones who find ways to effectively satisfy this need and demand. If the challenge is not met, then the movement may dwindle, with current members and leaders either falling away, or becoming inconsequential adjuncts of an unreformed Republican establishment.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.