Tea party's sway to be determined

Thousands gather Thursday at the U.S. Customhouse downtown for a tea party rally.

Wade Spees

The tea party movement in South Carolina is as loosely defined as it is across the country. But state Sen. Larry Grooms said the people in this state involved in the uprising have one fundamental position in common: Government exists to preserve life, liberty and property -- period.

Grooms, a Bonneau Republican who headlined the Tax Day rally in Charleston, said evidence of the movement's influence is all around, in the thousands of people who turned out for the protests this week and in the legislative debate in the halls of the Statehouse. The way it might alter the course of the state and nation is yet unseen, but many believe the possibility for wholesale change is within reach.

"There are enough folks who are starting to understand that when you govern outside of those foundational principles you end up with an unsustainable government," Grooms said. "There are a lot of progressive liberals who want to provide services to those who can't help themselves. The problem is once you start doing that, over time, you're not able to sustain that type of spending and the cure for poverty actually creates more poverty. Government can't give a dime in services that it does not take from someone else."

Karen Floyd, chairwoman of the state Republican Party, said the GOP has an "open door policy" and invites all coalitions that share the party's core values.

"The tea party is an organic movement of individuals that are frustrated by what's going on," she said.

More specifically, the tea party is made up of Republican activists and libertarians and constitutionalists and the ultra-conservatives and the occasional reformed Democrat, but many shun any sort of label.

Democrats hope to capitalize on a rift in GOP ranks, but state Democratic Party chairwoman Carol Fowler said she's not so sure the movement is organized enough to influence South Carolina elections and calls those affiliated with it a vocal minority.

Floyd said candidate filings don't appear to show a significant insurgence that would hurt the Republican's dominance in the state.

"I think we can look back in a year, and say this is empirical evidence that suggests, X, Y and Z," Floyd said. "At this point, we just don't know."

Democrats also want to use the dissatisfaction in the state to win elections. The party's polling data and focus groups show that South Carolinians are dissatisfied with conditions in the state, and are specifically very concerned about the high unemployment rate, Fowler said.

"As we get closer to November, you will see Democrats reminding voters over and over again: The Republicans have been in charge of South Carolina for a very long time," Fowler said.

Charles "Gene" Mowen, a retired Mack Trucks worker from Winnsboro, was a longtime Democrat until souring on the party during President Bill Clinton's time in office. Mowen then soured on the Republican Party during President George W. Bush's tenure. These days he calls himself a constitutionalist and a libertarian.

Mowen came to the Tax Day rally at the Statehouse on Thursday wearing a faded blue ball cap with "No more mister nice guy" embroidered across the front, a miniature American flag secured to the back of the hat and a laminated sign on his chest: "What part of the Constitution don't you understand?"

"I am totally fed up with our politicians," Mowen said. "I get so frustrated when a politician opens their mouth."

Mowen said his goal in participating in the tea party is to help the public understand what can be lost as a result of an overreaching government, and he said elected officials should pay attention to the movement.

"We're solid Americans," Mowen said. "We're not Bible-thumping, gun-toting nut cases."

A recent analysis of the tea party across the country by The Associated Press called it a "fool's errand" to try to define it. The AP found that the tea party is a home to the politically homeless and a fast-growing swath of citizens who are frustrated with Washington, their own state capitals and both major political parties. While taxes provide a primary issue for tea party rallies, those involved in the movement also champion debt reduction, free markets, states' rights, civil liberties, tort reform, term limits and abolishing federal agencies, according to the analysis.

Neal Thigpen, a retired political science professor at Francis Marion University, said the movement has been fueled by everything from the bad economy to the election of America's first black president.

The Great Depression, too, fed right- and left-wing extremists, Thigpen said. He cited admirers of Benito Mussolini's fascist Italy and populist Huey Long's rise to power in Louisiana as evidence.

"It's yet to be determined what impact they're going to have," Thigpen said of the tea party. "They're a strange movement. If indeed big government and national government spending is the root of all of this, where were they when Bush was in?"

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855 or ywenger@postandcourier.com.