In a year when Republican voters say they are angry, the leading GOP presidential candidates visited the GOP’s original angry voters on Saturday.
Front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz spoke here at the S.C. Tea Party Coalition Convention, which attracted hundreds of Southern organizers from the tea party movement that has swept candidates into Congress and state legislatures since 2010.
“Tea party people are amazing, dedicated, wonderful Americans, and they want to see good things happen,” Trump, a New York real estate mogul, told the convention. “They want to see this country get strong again, to be great again, pay less taxes, make a dollar stretch better, have strong borders, protect the Second Amendment.”
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Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, said politicians cannot claim to be part of the tea party movement if they supported the federal bailout of Wall Street and stimulus program or back ethanol subsidies to win over Iowa voters or sugar subsidies to woo Florida voters.
“No one ever grew a backbone after they got to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Cruz said.
Trump and Cruz – along with retired Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who speaks at the the convention Monday – have excited tea party supporters, turned off by the GOP’s nomination of establishment candidates U.S. Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012.
Tea Party Coalition members said they think they can elect someone who will fix a nation that has lost its way economically and morally.
“All of our values are being changed, and we don’t like that,” said Pat Hawkins, an AT&T retiree from Eatonton, Ga. “They keep talking about Muslims. Christians have been pushed aside.”
‘A seething rage’
Tea party support has waned since 2010.
The number of Americans identifying themselves as tea party supporters has fallen over the past five years to 17 percent from nearly 30 percent, according to Gallup. There has been a similar drop in among S.C. Republican voters, according to Winthrop Poll data.
The tea party movement took a hit after reports of extremism by some of its supporters, including mocking Democratic President Barack Obama’s African-American heritage. But the rise of political novices in the 2016 campaign, including Trump and Carson, has brought attention again to the populist movement.
Just weeks before the primaries start, Trump, Carson and Cruz – whom Joe Dugan, producer of the S.C. Tea Party event, called an outsider despite his office as a U.S. senator – have the backing of nearly two of three likely GOP voters in national and S.C. polls.
Tea Party Coalition members say they have been misunderstood. They are not the hatemongers portrayed in media reports.
“We stand for basic American principles,” said Laura Van Overschelde, chairwoman of the Mississippi Tea Party.
Sandra Inman, executive director of the Mississippi Tea Party, said the movement works to expose the insincerity of politicians and the media – including Fox News, the news channel favored by many conservatives.
“We make things more transparent,” Inman said.
While public support of the tea party movement has fallen, tea party supporters say many Republican voters agree with the movement’s issues without using its label. Many of the issues now angering Republican voters are about the same as the issues that led to the creation of tea party groups, they add.
GOP voters are angry about the health care reform passed by Congress. They are dismayed by efforts to grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants. They’re irate about military cuts as the Islamic State gains strength. And they’re frustrated by Republicans in Congress for compromising on a budget deal.
“There’s a seething rage,” 2016 Republican hopeful Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, told the Tea Party Coalition Saturday. “The budget deal made it worse as (Republicans) gave Democrats everything that they wanted at Christmas. All the Republicans got was a lump of coal.”
And with President Obama signing executive orders on immigration and gun control, many Republican voters say they feel they have little control over government. “He’s more being a king than a president,” said George Hawkins, who came to the convention with his wife from Georgia.
Like party leaders at the Republican National Committee meeting Friday in Charleston, speakers at the Tea Party Coalition Convention took aim at Obama and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.
One convention speaker was the author of book on the influence of foreign governments and businesses on Hillary and Bill Clinton. Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin noted, down to the hour, how much time remains until Obama’s presidency ends.
“He knows that in his last months as president of United States that he can affect more change than all the years of his retirement,” Martin told the crowd, “and he intends to use his power until the very end.”
‘Assault on America’
As they addressed the tea party advocates, the leading GOP candidates were coming off a Thursday debate in North Charleston where they pointedly sparred, including Trump questioning the eligibility of Cruz, who was born in Canada to an American mother, to be president.
On Saturday, Cruz did not go after Trump directly. Instead, he took a veiled swipes at U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the leading establishment candidate in the GOP field.
Cruz said the other GOP candidates were not being honest with Republican voters at the debate.
“Did you notice nobody on that debate stage gets up and says, ‘I’m the swishy, establishment moderate?’ “ he said.
Trump, however, took a shot at Cruz.
At the end of his 45-minute speech, Trump said, “You give a campaign contribution to Ted Cruz – money – you get whatever the hell you want.”
Several Cruz supporters in the crowd booed.
Trump then mentioned news reports about Cruz failing to report bank loans on election filings when he ran for the Senate.
“He’s got back loans from Goldman Sachs. He’s got bank loans from Citibank. And, then, he acts like Robin Hood,” he said. “Say whatever you want, it doesn’t work that way.”
The boos grew louder.
Trump could not control the crowd, as he does at his rallies, because his campaign was not running the event.
Earlier, Trump said his experience in bringing a new hotel project in under budget and ahead of schedule, and working to reopen Central Park’s ice rink, shows that he can fix the country’s problems.
“We can do that same thing with our government on a huge scale,” he said.
In looking for a presidential favorite, Tea Party Coalition advocates at the convention said they want someone in the White House who will not change his views after being elected.
Cruz supporters say the senator has backed up promises to upset the Washington establishment by shutting down the federal government for 16 days in 2013 in a failed attempt to defund Obama’s health care law.
“He’s proven himself,” said Van Overschelde, who is backing Cruz. “He’s doing what he’s needed to do.”
But Trump had the most supporters at the convention Saturday.
“We’re having a total assault on America,” said Janice Westmoreland, a Tea Party Patriots coordinator in Milledgeville, Ga. “He will put the right people in his circle and correct the problems. He knows how to get the job done.
“He’s a realist who has tapped into the heart and soul of people.”
Trump’s appeal, supporters say, is that he does not act or talk like a politician.
“He talks at our level,” said Mikele Haywood of Fayetteville, N.C.
Pat and George Hawkins, the couple from Georgia, said they have not decided who will get their vote. They are leaning toward Trump, though they had different views on the one-time reality TV show star.
George Hawkins said he thinks Trump can fulfill his pledge to get Mexico to pay for a wall on the U.S. border to stop undocumented immigrants and will build up the military to deter terrorist attacks.
“He’s not lying to us,” he said.
Pat Hawkins shook her head. “I don’t think he can do all what he says he can do,” she said.