Could 2011 Be the Spring of the Tea Parties’ Discontent?

BY Lee Banville  April 25, 2011 at 2:49 PM EDT

Following historic Republican victories in the House and in state legislatures throughout the country in 2010, Tea Party supporters saw a new chance to rein in government at the national and state levels.

Much of the attention about this fight has been focused on the recently averted government shutdown and the impending debate over raising the federal debt ceiling, but the situation in some states has also devolved into similar games of legislative chicken.

Breaking out the ‘veto’ brand

In Montana, efforts to nullify federal legislation like the health care bill and Endangered Species Act have mixed with a stalemate over the state budget. Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer took to the steps of the state capitol last week with three custom-made “Veto” cattle brands to shoot down 16 pieces of legislation.

“Frivolous, unconstitutional and just bad ideas,” he told a cheering crowd before he systematically rejected bills that would have repealed the state’s medical marijuana law and empowered the state to claim eminent domain authority on federal land, along with a series of GOP-backed health care laws.

Even as the smoke cleared from the governor’s stunt, Republican leaders were working to keep their ranks together around the more contentious state budget. The house speaker and senate president negotiated with Schweitzer to try and find agreement over the two-year budget.

Late Friday, the two sides announced a deal that would reduce general state spending by 6 percent, responding to Tea Party members who wanted significant cuts to the state budget. The budget would also accept $100 million in federal funds for prescription drugs and Medicaid programs, which Republicans had said they wanted to reject.

“I feel like we have reached a good compromise,” rancher and Senate President Jim Peterson told Associated Press. “I am hoping that next week will be a short week and we can all go home.”

The announcement had few specifics of the final cuts, those were expected later Monday and there was little reaction from legislators who had left Helena for the Easter weekend.

Legislative leaders expect to vote on the final budget Tuesday or Wednesday, but that could be complicated if Tea Party legislators balk at their leaders’ deal. Rank-and-file Republicans in the legislature, many of whom enjoyed Tea Party support in their elections, have said their supporters expect them to slash spending and limit the state’s dependence on federal dollars.

“We have a lot of people mad at us who wanted us to cut much more,” Rep. John Esp, a Republican from the central part of the state, told the Associated Press.

Although there is an element of partisan brinksmanship to the debate, legislators from certain community types in the state are the ones applying the most heat to their own leaders to stand up to the Democratic Schweitzer.

Tea Partying in stable parts of the state

As seen through the lens of Patchwork Nation, the Tea Party supporters hail largely from Monied Burbs and Tractor Country counties. One area of Tea Party activism is in the Flathead Valley in northwestern Montana, where we have reported on the political efforts in the region for months. Their activism did lead to several new legislators heading to Helena for this session.

Tractor Country counties have benefited sky-high commodity prices while other community types have struggled during the recession. These areas have been at the forefront of the confrontation with Schweitzer and others.

Another dominant Tea Party community type has been the Monied Burbs, like Flathead County, where some of the posher communities have felt the pinch of new property tax levies from the state and the lower income workers have lost many of the timber jobs that once made up a major component of the local economy. Both higher and lower income residents have responded by demanding smaller government.

Both community types, as a whole, have weathered the recession fairly well, especially Tractor County, where a lack of any real boom stemmed the ensuing bust. It also parallels much of the data on what’s known about Tea Party membership from 2010, where these two types, along with a fair number of Boom Towns, had the highest per capita Tea Party membership.

Since these communities have not faced the dire financial situation that Boom Towns and Service Worker Centers have and they are not as dependent on the government spending in the forms of Medicare and Social Security checks that fuel the economies of Emptying Nests, Monied Burbs and Tractor Country are a logical epicenter of the economic grassroots revolt that have complicated the politics in Washington and out here in Helena.

Still, in both venues, Tea Party supporters are struggling to get their limited government message through the legislative process and often fighting fellow Republicans in the process. Although the national media will pay attention to the upcoming battle in D.C., what happens here in Big Sky country could test the Tea Party candidates’ ability to translate this movement into the legislative process.

Lee Banville is the former editor of the Online NewsHour and a contributor to Patchwork Nation. Photo by Cody Bloomsburg.