How tea party politics might play out in Minnesota

Tea party activist
Antoinette Backdahl, who lives in the Twin Cities metro area, is active in the tea party movement in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Minnesota "Tea Party Patriots" plan a rally Saturday outside the State Capitol against federal health care reform, which they say is a government attempt to take over health care.

Tea party activists say discontent with "politics as usual" is fueling interest in their movement.

To the extent that tea party members in Minnesota are organized, Antoinette Backdahl is in charge. Backdahl, 45, is a friendly mother, grandmother and small business owner who lives in a western suburb of Minneapolis.

She prefers not to say which suburb. But she seemed happy to share her thoughts about the tea party.

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"We focus on the three principles -- fiscal responsibility, limited government and free markets," she said.

Backdahl said she had not been actively involved in politics until 2008 when she registered as a Republican. She has since abandoned the GOP, saying she's concerned about the direction the country is going.

Backdahl said she's upset about the growing national debt and what she believes is wasteful government spending.

She is also convinced there's movement in the U.S. that favors government control over private enterprise.

GOP Party's Sutton
Tony Sutton, chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, says tea party principles of limited government are similar to those of the GOP.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"It's clear that there's an attack on capitalism, and we have the facts to back that up," she said.

Backdahl makes her case by referencing lawmakers, celebrities and news organizations that she thinks oppose a free marketplace.

"You'll see Keith Olbermann will talk about it. Janeane Garofalo, Rosie O'Donnell. You'll see CNN talk about it. You'll see MSNBC talk about it. And that's what we're curious about," said Backdahl. "We were growing up wanting to participate in the American dream, and now all of the sudden the American dream is a dirty word."

Backdahl said her Minnesota tea party e-mail list has about 3,500 names on it, and it's growing weekly. She said they're not just a bunch of angry Republicans and Libertarians.

"This is not a GOP dog and pony show," she said. We have one-third of people who are Republicans, because a lot of the candidates are conservatives. Then we have one-third who are independents and Democrats, and we have one-third who have never been involved in politics at all."

One of the founders of Minnesota's Independence Party has been urging tea party supporters to align with the IP, arguing that the two groups share similar philosophies.

DFL chief Brian Melendez
The head of the DFL Party in Minnesota, Brian Melendez, says the GOP's courting of the tea party may backfire because of what he says are "outlandish claims" made by some tea party activists.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

But state Republican Party chair Tony Sutton says the GOP is a better fit.

"They're talking about jobs, and taxes, and spending, and limited government and fiscal responsibility," said Sutton. "In a lot of ways it's about the new people, and the tea party movement -- a lot of it is just good old fashioned Republicanism."

The head of the DFL Party in Minnesota, Brain Melendez, says he sees the tea party as a movement within the Republican Party.

Melendez predicts the Republican effort to embrace tea party activists will backfire because of some of the outlandish things some tea partiers believe -- such as their contention that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen.

"I think that's borderline insanity," said Melendez. "The tea party tends to identify themselves with the movement that some have called '10th-ers,' people who support the 10th Amendment as a vehicle for obstructing programs sponsored by the federal government, like health care reform."

Carlton College political science professor Steven Schier says it's clear tea party energy is helping Republicans nationally.

But Schier says in Minnesota, the movement could harm the GOP if tea partiers fed up with Republicans migrate to the Independence Party.

"State DFLers have long felt that the Independence Party candidate for governor takes more votes from Democrats than Republicans. If, on the other hand, a lot of tea party advocates end up supporting the Independence Party that pattern could shift, and it could be a statewide disadvantage for Republicans in gubernatorial elections," said Schier.

That may be one reason why the GOP in Minnesota is trying to convince tea party activists it's returning to its core values.

"We're going to have to do it through our actions, not just out words," said GOP Chairman Tony Sutton.

But Sutton acknowledges the Republicans have their work cut out for them on that.

"Before Barack Obama, we had spent eight years of being the party of so-called fiscal responsibility, but were spending money like drunken sailors in Washington," said Sutton. "We were the party of so-called limited government and we expanded government, so we were hypocrites."

Sutton says the tea party influence within the GOP will be evident at this year's state convention. He says tea partiers might have enough of a presence to beef up the state GOP platform on tax and spending issues.