Though the Tea Party movement is not a cohesive entity, its component parts this year have been grappling with a central existential question: To be, or not be, a third party? Thus far, Tea Party leadership from across the country has made a concerted effort to keep its powerful, grass roots movement within the Republican Party. As one of Colorado’s Tea Party leaders, Lesley Hollywood, told me recently, “We had to work at convincing people that the right approach was to work within the Republican Party – to restore its conservative principles and to keep it honest.” The thinking is that third party candidates are relegated to the role of spoiler, and even in the rare occasion when they are well financed, have little chance of actually winning. Principle is important, but power is essential to changing the way government works. The Tea Party has learned to work the system, and the system has begun to work for them. Or so they thought. Late on Monday, former GOP Congressman Tom Tancredo announced that he was entering the race for Colorado Governor as the candidate of the tiny American Constitution Party. Even for those who know this mercurial politician well, Tancredo’s move represented a dramatic about face. In December of 2009, Tancredo sent an open letter to Colorado’s Tea Party patriots, imploring them to get behind the Republican Party and not make the “suicidal” mistake of backing a third-party candidate from a small fringe party:
Some patriots are tempted to launch a third political party or back one of the existing small parties that never attract more than one or two percent of the vote in state races. I strongly believe that such a course is suicidal and would only result in splitting the conservative vote and guaranteeing the re-election of liberals and socialists.
I believe the Republican Party is the natural home of conservatives and that the road back to constitutional government lies in taking control of the Republican Party from top to bottom, from county committee to the statehouse and all the way to Washington, D.C.
According to the Denver Post, the ACP has 2,000 voters registered with the Colorado Secretary of State, and is the kind of fringe party that Tancredo rightly says never attracts more than a point or two of the vote. But with a high-profile candidate in Tancredo, who has a dedicated core of state-wide support and a proven capacity to raise money, there is a very real fear that the American Conservative Party will split the Republican vote sufficiently to ensure that Democrat John Hickenlooper is elected in November. As Colorado GOP Chair Dick Wadhams told the Wall Street Journal, “He wants to destroy Republican chances”.
Not that Republicans haven’t done a good job themselves of messing up the Governor’s race – the Republican front runner, Scott McInnis, has been embroiled in a high-profile plagiarism scandal, and Tancredo’s stated rationale for joining the race is McInnis can no longer win. But in the end, this move by Tancredo likely has less to do with politics and more to do with personality. “Tancredo has an unquenchable thirst for national media attention, at any cost”, Wadhams told the Wall Street Journal. Tancredo has gained a national following for his strident position on illegal immigration. When Tancredo ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, he ran an ad that was reminiscent of the “daisy girl” spot that LBJ ran against Barry Goldwater in 1964 – depicting a bomb being planted by illegal immigrants exploding in a mall and the slogan “Tancredo – before it’s too late”.
This kind of sensationalism from a Tancredo run is likely to suck the air out of the Colorado campaign season – at all levels. In fact, conservatives worry that beyond splitting the conservative vote in the Governor’s race, Tancredo’s presence on the ballot will affect other races as well. This includes the race in the critical 4th CD, where Republican Cory Gardner is running a hotly contested race against Democrat Incumbent Betsy Markey. If Tancredo’s presence at the top of the ticket helps the ACP”s 4th CD candidate Doug Aden siphons away votes from Gardner, it could mean the difference in the race.
All of which is salt in the wound to Colorado Tea Party activists – especially in Northern Colorado, where Cory Gardner is from. In an open letter to Tancredo the day before he made his decision to enter the race, Lu Busse, Chairwoman of the Colorado 9-12 Project Coalition wrote:
We clearly demonstrated at the precinct caucuses and state assembly (that the)Tea Party and other pro-liberty grassroots individuals have worked tirelessly for more than a year championing our principles, becoming engaged and informed, learning the political process, vetting candidates at all levels, and also reshaping the Colorado Republican Party as you advised.
For Tancredo, it’s do as I say, not as I do. “He’s making a mockery of himself and the entire election process”, Lesley Hollywood told the Wall Street Journal. “It seems like an enormous power grab”.
Or publicity grab, anyway.