Some business groups signaling they've had enough of tea party

Rep. Erik Paulsen
Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen is shown speaking in Washington, D.C. in a file photo taken on Thursday, June 7, 2012. While some members of the business community applauded Paulsen and other members of Congress who refused to let the nation slip into default, tea party members have threatened primary challenges to Republican members of Congress they accuse of "caving in" to Democrats.
MPR Photo/Brett Neely

A few days into the 16-day federal government shutdown, a group of conservatives arrived at the Eden Prairie offices of Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen.

They were furious that Paulsen, who represents Minnesota's 3rd District, was open to a deal to end the shutdown without concessions from Democrats.

At the time, House Speaker John Boehner was holding firm: There would be no shutdown deal unless Democrats agreed to change the Affordable Care Act. The conservative activists wanted Paulsen to do likewise. They warned that there could be a backlash against Republicans who agreed to a deal without any changes to "Obamacare."

"What you're going to get, in my opinion, if there is a less than satisfactory deal, is another batch of tea party Republicans," Vince Beaudette, of Victoria, Minn., one of the tea party activists at Paulsen's office said a week later. "Whether they come from this district or not, you're going to get another batch of those tea party Republicans coming on board and going to Congress."

After President Barack Obama and Democrats in the Senate held firm, the Republican-controlled House eventually voted to end the shutdown without changing the health care law. The agreement passed largely on the strength of Democratic votes -- and with just enough Republicans going along.

Vince Beaudette
Vince Beaudette, 67 of Victoria, credits U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen for speaking with him, but also believes there will be a backlash because congressional Republicans settled for a deal without concessions on the Affordable Care Act.
Mark Zdechlik

Paulsen voted for the deal. Afterwards, Beaudette concluded that Paulsen's shutdown position was "soft from the beginning," and that Paulsen is "part of the problem" in Washington.

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Since then, he and other tea party members have threatened primary challenges to Republican members of Congress they accuse of "caving in" to Democrats.

It remains to be seen if mainstream Republicans can defeat the right wing of their party at the ballot box.

But some business groups are signaling that they've had enough of the tea party, particularly its adherents in Congress who insisted upon a government shutdown that, according to economists, cost the economy billions of dollars.

Minnesota Business Partnership Executive Director Charlie Weaver, who represents CEOs and other leaders of the state's largest corporations, said they viewed the shutdown battle as foolish and counterproductive. Had the battle not ended with an agreement to raise the debt ceiling, they worried that the nation would default on its financial obligations.

"We think it puts the United States at risk," Weaver said.

Charlie Weaver, Minnesota Business Partnership
Minnesota Business Partnership Executive Director Charlie Weaver says the shutdown battle was "foolish" and "counterproductive."
Mark Zdechlik

Last week, he applauded Paulsen and other members of Congress who refused to let the nation slip into default.

"I just talked to Erik Paulsen this morning and he told me, yeah, he's already getting notes and letters saying 'we're going to find someone to run against you because you were open to the compromise,'" Weaver said. "And that's crazy talk, right? So I think you'll see the business community support those who stood up and supported, ultimately, a compromise."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to weigh in against tea party candidates in Republican primary elections. The chamber's top political strategist, Scott Reed, told Bloomberg News, "The need is now more than ever to elect people who understand the free market, not silliness."

If the shutdown battle was a wake-up call for Republicans across the nation, the Republican establishment in Minnesota may well have learned its own lesson in the 2012 U.S. Senate race, University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said.

Fans of libertarian Texas Republican congressman Ron Paul stacked the GOP convention and endorsed high school economics teacher Kurt Bills as the Republican candidate.

Bills, who was in his first term in the Minnesota House, was unable to raise enough money for a competitive campaign. He lost the general election to Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar by nearly 35 percentage points.

Jacobs said mainstream Minnesota Republicans may never again rely on GOP convention delegates to select their candidates.

"Republicans and the business community and other Republicans allies have pretty much come to the conclusion that the tea party and the Ron Paul supporters -- the liberty movement -- have succeeded in taking over the party," he said.

As a result, Jacobs said, the business interests that dominate the GOP establishment likely will bypass party insiders and focus on primaries in an effort to select candidates with wide appeal, instead of those who are supported mostly by hardcore conservative activists.

"For the business community, they're going to want to get behind a candidate who they think can win a general election, who can put up a competitive fight against Sen. Al Franken and against Gov. Dayton," he said. "They're not going to want to trust their money with a party that some would argue has been taken over by the liberty movement and the tea party that's mostly committed to a ultra-conservative agenda rather than winning elections."

Major primary campaigns are nothing new in Minnesota. It's the route Dayton took three years ago in his successful bid for governor.

Dayton, who did not seek the DFL endorsement, called his primary campaign more democratic than the endorsement process. He defeated his party's endorsed candidate in the primary and went on to defeat Republican-endorsed candidate Tom Emmer in the general election.

But Jacobs said even with a focus on primaries it will still be difficult for establishment Republicans to place candidates on general election ballots. He notes that relatively few people vote in primaries, and those who do often represent the extremes of their party.

"When you look around at who turns out in primary elections both here in Minnesota and other states, they tend to be the most conservative elements," he said. "Turning out moderates for a primary is not something that we generally see. So the challenge for Charlie Weaver and other parts of the business community that are ready to take on the tea party is, 'do you have the votes? '"

National polls show support for the tea party has dropped sharply over the past few years.

According a Gallup poll released late last week, about 22 percent of Americans support the tea party. That's down from 32 percent in the fall of 2010 when the tea party was at the height of its popularity following its emergence in opposition to the federal health care law.

But MN Tea Party Alliance Executive Director Jake Duesenberg disputes any notion that tea party influence is dwindling.

"When you start new tea parties usually our biggest problem is we need to find a bigger location, which is a phenomenal problem to have," he said.

Jake Duesenberg, Minnesota Tea Party Alliance
Jake Duesenberg, executive director of the Minnesota Tea Party Alliance, says there is no sign that tea party influence is dwindling as a result of the government shutdown battle.
Mark Zdechlik

Duesenberg said there's a growing number of tea party groups in Minnesota.

"There are at least six new groups since April," he said of tea party activity in the Twin Cities area. "And there are groups we don't even know about because they are in the outstate."

Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey also said interest in the tea party is increasing. But Downey disputes the idea that the Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war. He said tea party energy and ideas make the GOP more vibrant than the Democratic Party.

"A lot is made of the challenges in the Republican Party and this notion that there a bunch of factions that are competing and warring," Downey said. "My perspective on that is, I feel like there's more intellectual energy and vitality."

That may be, but the last few statewide elections put liberal politicians, including Klobuchar and Dayton, in the state's highest offices and left conservatives such as Bills and Emmer on the sidelines.