Splintered S.C. tea party may not be a factor in GOP race

Just a year after helping sweep in a new Palmetto State governor and four new congressmen, the Tea Party may well be a non-factor in picking the winner of the Republican Party’s South Carolina presidential primary.

The Tea Party’s principles — of smaller government and lower taxes — still resonate with GOP voters. But several Republican presidential hopefuls are laying claim to Tea Party support, diluting the movement’s potency.

So far, S.C. Tea Party favorites include:

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who both the Myrtle Beach and Laurens County Tea Parties endorsed this week;

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who has a loyal faction of followers in the Greenville Tea Party;

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who has won the endorsement of the head of the Anderson Tea Party; and

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who is a favorite of socially conservative Tea Party members.

Another S.C. Tea Party favorite, Herman Cain, effectively is out of the race, muddying the waters on where Tea Party votes will go.

New polling also shows fewer S.C. Republicans say they are Tea Party members.

Among S.C. Republicans, only 15 percent said they consider themselves members of the Tea Party movement, according to a new Winthrop University poll. That is a big drop from Winthrop’s September poll, when almost 28 percent of S.C. Republicans said they were Tea Party members.

Still, 61 percent of S.C. Republicans say they approve of the Tea Party.

Allen Olson of Columbia said he recently got a first-hand look at the fractured movement. Olson resigned his post as chairman of the Columbia Tea Party earlier this year so he could volunteer with Gingrich’s campaign, a move that he says drew criticism from some fellow Tea Party members who view Gingrich as a political insider.

“It’s really fractured,” Olson said of the movement. “It’s unbelievable and disappointing. I couldn’t believe some Tea Party members would tear into another over who we were supporting in the race.”

Olson said the Tea Party should never become a solid voting bloc; that opens the door for the movement to be co-opted and controlled by campaigns. Instead, he said he is pleased with the influence the movement is having during this election cycle in shaping the campaign debate.

“The candidates wouldn’t be talking about limited government and fiscal responsibility if it weren’t for us,” Olson said. “We’ve got the candidates chasing us.”

Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist and pollster, agrees.

“The Tea Party is helping shape the discussion even if they’re not helping pick the candidate,” Huffmon said. “They won’t be the driving force in this election like they were in 2010, but they’re still a relevant force in shaping the debate.”

The Tea Party is showing solidarity in one respect — who not to support. Members almost unanimously agree former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney should not be the GOP nominee.

“The single biggest reason he isn’t the one is Romney-care,” said Jonathon Hill, referring to the requirement that Massachusetts citizens buy health insurance that Romney signed while governor. Earlier this week, Hill, an organizer for the Anderson Tea Party, endorsed Bachmann.

Tea Party unification may not come until after the GOP primaries, predicts Dianne Belsom, president of the Laurens County Tea Party.

“Everybody has a different favorite at this point,” she said. “But once the primary is over and we have a nominee, that could change. There’s agreement that we need to replace Obama and get our country going back in the right direction.”

Even then, some Tea party groups, including Belsom’s, are focusing on other races, encouraging their members to get involved in local government, including school boards and county councils.

“The presidential race is just one aspect of changing our government,” she said. “It’s not just this one race that matters. There’s a lot of work to do on all levels.”

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