Last year, the Family Research Council’s DC Values Voters Summit was about as establishment Republican an event as you can get. The entire GOP congressional leadership addressed the crowd of evangelical activists and Mike Huckabee, a longtime favorite of social conservatives, won the conference’s presidential straw poll in a landslide.
How things have changed in one year: Not a single member of the Republican leadership made the trek to DC’s Omni Shoreham hotel for this year’s summit. Instead, the event was dominated by tea-party-caucus types like Representatives Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), along with newly minted conservative rock star Christine O’Donnell, the surprise winner of the Delaware GOP senate primary. And in a startling indicator of just how much the political landscape has shifted, Huckabee was edged out of the 2012 straw poll by tea party favorite and Indiana congressman Mike Pence. (Sarah Palin placed fifth.)
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told me that his group had invited top Republicans such as House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), both of whom had attended last year, but none had jumped on the offer, citing campaign conflicts. Their absence suggested that the GOP leadership might have feared that it would be facing a hostile crowd. After all, it represents the party mainstream that has failed to back insurgent conservatives such as Alaskan senatorial candidate Joe Miller and O’Donnell.
As much as the Values Voter Summit may have reflected the new Republican reality, it was clear at the conference that the tea party movement and the old Christian Coalition are not one as the same. Only about a third of the attendees I talked to had even been to a tea party event. More than one person commented on tea partiers’ political inexperience. I got the sense that many thought that while the tea party is certainly exciting, it may not be around a year from now—unlike the religious right, which has been battling against abortion and moral decay all these many years.
Jeffery Later, the director of federal tax compliance for Walt Disney, said most of the people at the summit tended to be social conservatives, not the fiscal conservatives who are leading the tea party charge. He says his impression has been that “people who have never been politically engaged are getting into the tea party.” Mark Meadows, a North Carolina resident, told me, “We can get real passionate about fiscal issues when everybody is out of a job.” But once the economy revives, he predicted, the social issues—and the people who are passionate about them—will come roaring back.
Michele Tennery, from Arlington, Virginia, was one of the few people I spoke with who had actually attended a tea party march. She said she’d been involved with the movement since Tax Day 2009. She suspected that while there might be a generational gap between tea party types and the values voters, she didn’t see the two as all that different. “There are a lot of people who are motivated by their faith to get involved in the tea party movement,” she said.
Still, the Values Voter Summit organizers seemed to realize that their audience was not made up of hardcore tea partiers. Sessions specifically devoted to tea party issues were largely Tea Party 101 as taught by B-list activists and minor celebrities. One panel Friday featured Katy Abram, who’d become a tea party heroine after she stood up at a Pennsylvania town hall meeting last August and blasted Sen. Arlen Specter over the pending health care reform bill, the Wall Street bailout, and other hot-button issues. At the conference, Abram spent her time talking about one of social conservatives’ favorite topics, persecution by liberals, claiming that all the death threats she’s received have forced her husband to mow while armed.
Abram was joined by Billie Tucker, a Florida tea party organizer who knew how to speak the values voters’ language. She said there was some disagreement in the tea party over whether social issues were too divisive, but she reassured her audience, “I know God did not wake me up for four months because he has a tax issue. I’m putting my God back into the United States of America. I don’t care what people say.”
The one tea party-focused breakout session on Saturday afternoon turned out to be a bit of a bait and switch. Billed as a special presentation of the results of a poll asking “Who are the Tea Party and Christian Voters and What Do They Believe?”, it turned out to be a presentation dominated by the head of the Home School Legal Defense Association, who is mounting a campaign against Senate ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, largely because it would ban spanking. The poll results did reveal, however, that when it comes to disciplining children, values voters and tea partiers see eye to eye. Compared with 47 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of all Republicans, 82 percent of tea partiers strongly agree that American parents have the right to give their kids “a modest spanking.”