FORT WAYNE, Ind.—
Sen. Todd Young
warned the few dozen conservatives gathered this month in the basement of a sushi restaurant that their activism could be the only thing to stop Congress from spending trillions of dollars of tax money.
“You flooding the zone with your concerns will amplify for members just how serious they are,” the Indiana Republican said.
After Mr. Young’s remarks, his audience talked among themselves about school-board meetings and the state’s coronavirus rules. Government spending, said
a local libertarian leader at the event, “is important, but it’s almost on the back burner.”
Beginning in February 2009, Americans gathered by the thousands at high-energy tea-party rallies to protest federal spending to stimulate the economy and government bailouts during the recession caused by the subprime mortgage crisis.
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Some Democrats and civil-rights groups have alleged there were racial undertones in the tea-party movement, which began during the tenure of the first Black president, and in which government spending programs it chose to target. Tea-party leaders have said their actions were motivated by concerns about the size of government, not by animus toward former President
or the race of the beneficiaries of any government program.
The tea-party movement went on to win control of the House of Representatives and flip 20 state legislative chambers in 2010, but it receded over time.
Now, with an even bigger fiscal outlay on the table this fall—a proposed $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion healthcare, climate and education package—some in the GOP are trying to rekindle enthusiasm for curbing spending and the size of government.
They’re finding it a tougher sell, but are trying to make it resonate by focusing on inflation that drives up household expenses and tying in topics now animating Republicans, including what some see as government overreach on vaccine and mask mandates.
“It’s a different time,” said
president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group founded by billionaires Charles and
that helped foment the tea-party movement. “We’re not necessarily trying to compete with other issues. Our strategy is to have a relentless focus on spending and big government.”
Senate Majority Leader
(D., N.Y.) has called Republicans hypocritical for greenlighting trillions in spending under former President
only to turn around and object under President Biden.
who became active in politics during the tea party’s rise and is communications director for the Arlington County Republican Committee in Virginia, said Mr. Schumer “has got a good point.”
“Part of our tribal politics means frequently people don’t hold their own side accountable,” he said. “That makes it significantly harder to take the moral high ground now.”
In 2017, the Trump administration’s first year, the percentage of Americans who favored smaller government began to decline for the first time in years, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. A Pew survey released in January 2021 found 42% of adults believed reducing the budget deficit should be a “top priority” for the president and Congress—but a dozen other issues were considered more urgent.
Another challenge for the antispending messengers is that much of the government outlay during the coronavirus pandemic was welcomed by voters in both parties.
Seventy percent of Americans, including four out of 10 Republicans, supported Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus-relief package in a Pew survey in March. That followed two other broadly popular coronavirus spending plans under Mr. Trump that passed Congress with bipartisan support.
Yet some Republican leaders see a new opening for what was once a pillar of the party.
Senate Minority Leader
said on the Senate floor last week that Mr. Biden’s coronavirus relief led to inflation and that more pain was on the way if Democrats “jam through another massive, multitrillion-dollar reckless spending spree.”
the Republican candidate in the Virginia governor’s race in November, cites the rising price of food and gas in some of his advertisements. “It’s not your imagination,” he says in one spot, as he strolls through a grocery store. “Consumer prices are going up.”
Since May, Americans for Prosperity has been road-testing its “stop the spending spree” mantra with voters at more than 500 events such as the talk with Mr. Young and on social media.
Americans for Prosperity says its members have made 170,000 calls and sent 1.8 million emails to senators and members of Congress to object to government spending since its latest campaign began.
Mr. Phillips said the numbers showed grass-roots enthusiasm for their cause of taming the growth of government. But the events are muted compared with the mega rallies of the early tea-party years.
who organized many of those events while he worked at the libertarian Washington group FreedomWorks, said he couldn’t fathom a revival of that energy—which drove hundreds of thousands of seemingly angry fiscal conservatives to show up at rallies and take over congressional town halls.
As a political consultant in Austin, Texas, Mr. Steinhauser said he attends campaign events, elected officials’ town halls and GOP meetings across the state. He lamented that spending and the national debt simply never enters the discussion.
“All the space has been taken up by cultural battles,” Mr. Steinhauser said. “It’s all about coronavirus mask mandates, never about the money going out the door for coronavirus.”
At the Fort Wayne event with Mr. Young, attended by local Americans for Prosperity employees and volunteers, some recent recruits said they had been spurred to activism not by federal spending but by what they see as antiwhite curriculum at schools and mask and vaccine mandates.
Amanda Tokos, who has been organizing parents to get involved at school board meetings, said she sees a connection between those issues and expanding government spending.
“Anytime you take something from the government, you owe them something,” she said. “Having these huge deficits is propelling us into socialism. It’s all about keeping us vulnerable so that we will be obedient.”
Mr. Phillips said he was trying to bring it all together, name-checking mask mandates and school curriculum worries as he decries big government overall.
Over barbecue at a gridiron-themed gathering on the first Thursday of the National Football League season, Americans for Prosperity members hosted Rep.
(R., Pa.) at their office in Wormleysburg, just south of the Pennsylvania state capital.
Mr. Perry warned the roughly 50 people there that Democrats and Republicans alike would find ways to “keep on spending every single bit of your tax money.”
Many Americans weren’t paying attention, he argued.
“They’re trying to live their lives. They’ve got a lot of stuff going on,” said Mr. Perry, who urged the members to keep calling Congress and talking to their neighbors about government spending. “They don’t know.”
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