POLL: Has the tea party been good for America?
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann votes with House Republican leadership 95 percent of the time. He has introduced a bill that would eliminate capital gains taxes for two years. And at public speeches, he often pulls out a pocket-sized Constitution and pledges undying love for what it says.
But that's not enough to get a re-election endorsement from the Chattanooga Tea Party, an organization devoted to cutting government, lowering taxes and adhering strictly to the Constitution, according to its mission statement.
"I don't think we will endorse Chuck Fleischmann," Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West said Friday. "We applaud that he's done some things right - I don't want to minimize that - but we need a congressman who's bold."
West cited presidential candidate and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., as an example of "adversarial" congressional boldness. He said Fleischmann hasn't pushed Congress toward true austerity like Bachmann, perhaps the staunchest opponent of raising the debt ceiling last summer.
In a written statement, Fleischmann said less government, lower taxes and fewer regulations "are the values I stood for when I ran for office ... and that is how I will continue to vote."
"The only person in politics I have found I agree with 100 percent of the time is me - even my wife sometimes asks me why I voted a certain way," he wrote. "I am trying to get everyone's endorsement, but I realize I can't make everybody happy all of the time."
The tea party's deficit-cutting, entitlement-slashing movement handed Republicans the House last year. But with partisan gridlock and Congress' approval rating at 9 percent, it's unclear whether the tea party has enough clout for next year's election.
Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said movements based on fear and anger "tend to have a relatively short half-life."
"It's seen as maybe an overly extreme organization by relatively conservative Republicans," he said. "That diminishes its influence."
But in a congressional district like Tennessee's 3rd, where Republicans have won since 1994, tea party support probably still means something.
"If it's just the GOP primary that matters, a tea party endorsement can make a difference for you," Hetherington said.
Waiting to endorse
West said the Chattanooga Tea Party wasn't happy when House Speaker John Boehner attended a fundraiser for Fleischmann. He suggested that the freshman congressman landed Boehner's endorsement because he's "a party man" who usually goes along with the speaker's message.
"It would tend to suggest a cozy relationship there," West said. "You can't get any more powerful a man coming to your corner."
The tea party friction isn't new, and the existing alliances aren't particularly friendly to Fleischmann. Last year the Chattanooga Tea Party did not endorse anyone in the crowded Republican primary race to replace longtime Congressman Zach Wamp, but West himself contributed $2,400 to Fleischmann's top rival, Robin Smith.
Fleischmann eked out the nomination, beating Smith by 2 percentage points.
"What we ended up with was probably the candidate we preferred the least," West said.
West then donated $2,400 to an independent, Savas Kyriakidis, and the Chattanooga Tea Party eventually endorsed Kyriakidis in the general election.
One Democrat and three Republicans have announced challenges against Fleischmann, but the Chattanooga Tea Party doesn't plan to endorse anyone yet, according to West.
"We need leaders who will resist the temptation to just fall right in line with the party and whatever they say," he said.
At a Christmas event Thursday evening, the Chattanooga Tea Party settled on Bachmann and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as top nominees for president.
West said the party hasn't discussed whether to endorse U.S. Sen. Bob Corker in his quest for re-election.