The South Carolina Tea Party Convention kicked off Saturday in Myrtle Beach, right as the group in general seems to be losing ground.
There were 600 available seats at the Springmaid Beach Resort conference room, along with an additional 100 in a second-floor overflow room.
State tea party organizer Joe Dugan said it’s the same number they had for the 2012 convention. All 600 people who were invited last year attended, he said, and he was expecting the same number throughout this weekend’s event.
By 10:30 Saturday morning, more than 200 were gathered in the conference room to hear remarks from U.S. Reps. Tom Rice, Mick Mulvaney and Jeff Duncan, as well as others.
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Still, there was a definite difference between the 2013 convention and the one held last January. For one thing, that event coincided with weekend activities leading up to the Republican presidential debate held in Myrtle Beach. Many of the Republican presidential hopefuls dropped by the tea party convention, which had significant media coverage from local, national and even international journalists.
On the media sign-in sheet Saturday, only five slots had been filled out within the first two hours. A press room was empty at 11 a.m., except for two unattended laptops.
The smaller interest could be due partly to a lessening of the tea party’s influence.
The movement suffered a major setback in November after President Barack Obama successfully won a second term against Republican Mitt Romney. And a December poll of South Carolinians by Winthrop University showed only 5.7 percent of registered voters considered themselves tea party members.
Among Republicans and independents who lean Republican that voted in the 2012 presidential election, just 9 percent considered themselves tea party members, a drop of about two-thirds from the 30.5 percent who claimed tea party affiliation in 2010.
But the movement’s not dead yet, as the hundreds of attendees on Saturday showed.
“The strength of the tea party has definitely ebbed from the enormous support it enjoyed in the conservative movement and Republican circles back in 2010,” said Scott Huffmon, professor of political science at Winthrop. “While fewer people in S.C. support the principles of the tea party, and fewer S.C. Republicans report that they are actual members of the tea party, the movement is by no means over.”
Huffmon said the group has been weakened and fragmented, most recently by last year’s presidential primary, in which various tea party organizations backed different candidates. Huffmon also blamed some backlash on external groups that tried to impose their own top-down organization on local groups, which didn’t appreciate what they saw as outsiders trying to take over.
“These folks at the convention,” Huffmon said, “are the core of the core of true believers. Their commitment may be strong, but there is no denying that there are simply fewer marginal adherents these days.”
So where does the smaller movement go from here?
Some members say the tea party’s next move is shifting away from national affairs and looking at more local and state issues.
Dugan said that wouldn’t be the theme for the Palmetto State’s 2013 convention. He said they’ll work at state issues all year long, but wanted this weekend’s event to have a focus on national issues.
“We have more of a national focus. That is because we believe we are at a crossroads for the future of America,” Dugan said ahead of the weekend convention.
On Saturday morning, attendees were listening to a seminar on foreign terrorism.
Henry Cooper, chairman of High Frontier, a small nonprofit dedicated to informing the public on ballistic missile defense, warned of the risk of electromagnetic pulse attack.
An EMP attack, Cooper warned, could leave America completely in the dark and send it back into the 18th century, leading to the death of two-thirds of the country’s population within 12 months of an attack.
Terrorist threats wasn’t the only topic attendees heard discussions on. Throughout the weekend event, talks also centered around the economy, religious freedom and President Barack Obama’s health care reform.
There were plenty of takeaway messages from tea party supporters, some of which were written on signs.
One read, “What will get America out of its dilemma is resurrect McCa[r]thy’s hearings.”
For John Steinberger and Kathy Hughes, one way to get America out of its dilemma is to limit government regulations.
Steinberger feels the federal Department of Education, for one, has no constitutional right to meddle in the affairs of local and state schools.
Hughes said many legislators don’t understand that the Constitution is the law of the land.
“How can they make laws for us?” she asked.
Huffmon said the tea party could easily grow once more if the right circumstances fall into place.
“All the elements are still there, just less organized and cohesive,” he said Saturday. “I have likened it to a solution for electroplating. The elements are there, but floating around and disorganized until you put a piece of metal in and run an electrical charge through it. Then those elements rush to glom on to the source of the electrical charge. Conventions like this are important for keeping the core alive until the movement begins to coalesce again.”
“Their best chance to begin making a difference in the meantime will be to remain visible in the election to replace Tim Scott and organize strongly for GOP primaries at every level across the state over the next couple of years.”
Norm Shapp, an 85-year-old from Bluffton, could arguably be on the side of those who say movements like the tea party are coming to an end.
He attended the convention on Saturday to hear what was said, but on the whole doesn’t believe in what most of the movements are about.
Shapp said he’s tired of all the talk without any action. And he’s ready for some action.
The action he’s talking about is a revolution on par with the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Shapp said it’s time to take up arms, but at his age, he wouldn’t be one to lead the charge.
“I want to see how it ends,” he said.