Amy Kremer was the chair of the Tea Party Express, a national group that supports the Tea Party movement and has been recognized as “one of the movement’s most successful players” by the New York Times. Kremer recently resigned to work on the senatorial campaign of Mark Bevin in the May 20 Kentucky GOP primary. Kremer conducted this interview as the chair of the TPE with BPR’s Michael Chernin.
Brown Political Review: Could you discuss what the Tea Party Express is, and what your role entails as Chairperson?
Amy Kremer: The Tea Party Express is a federal PAC, and it’s one of the original organizations that got involved in the movement in 2009. We were the first PAC to actually engage in the election process. I believe the first race we got involved in was Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Moving forward after Brown, the biggest thing we’re known for are our bus tours—we’ve done 8 national bus tours, and a number of smaller tours in Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin. That’s what our brand is known for. We also did the first ever Tea Party presidential debate—we partnered with CNN. I was never involved in politics before. I was just a mom who was sick and fed up with what was going on in Washington. It was during the election cycle when I started blogging and got on social media. I connected with these other activists across the country and we started the modern day Tea Party movement. I’ll go out and interview candidates, but at the same time, I’ll go to Tea Party meetings.
BPR: The movement has many different organizational bodies. You have the Tea Party Express, the Tea Party Nation, the Tea Party Patriots, Freedom Works, and others. How do they interact with each other? Do they compete for the national spotlight?
AK: Tea Party Express and Tea Party Patriots do not interact at all. We’re of the mindset that—we just go out and get it done. If people don’t want to work with you, than you work around them. We’re on a mission to elect fiscal conservatives, so that’s what we’re focused on. Regarding anybody that can contribute to that effort, the more the merrier. I’d say that in Wisconsin, though, that was a good example of everyone getting involved in the recall. Tea Party Patriots was doing their thing, Tea Party Express, I think the Tea Party Nation was with us. There are groups like Americans for Prosperity and Madison Project that don’t have the words “tea party” in their name, but they’re considered part of the movement. So I think we all work together, but like Reagan said, you get a lot more accomplished if you don’t care who gets the credit—I think a lot of us see things that way.
BPR: How has the Tea Party been able to convey its message? Is there anything you need to improve on regarding your outreach strategy?
AK: The Republicans are horrible on messaging. This is one of my big issues. If you listen to Democrats, they pull on heartstrings and emotions, and they produce stories that people relate to. Republicans stand up there and talk about policy facts and figures. You don’t engage anyone that way. We have to reach people and tell stories so they can relate to us. What do the Democrats do? They talk about people in their districts or families. I didn’t support the comprehensive immigration plan, but the one thing I will say is that when Marco Rubio was on the Senate floor talking about immigration the day of the vote, and he told the story of his parents and family, I started to cry. That’s what we have to be better at. We also have to be better at tapping into pop culture. Barack Obama is a “rock star.” He’s a pop culture icon, and he goes on Ellen and Jay Leno…No president has ever done that. As technology develops and digital media becomes more a part of our lives, these shows are relevant and there’s a reason they have such high ratings. If we’re going to reach kids and young adults that relate to reality shows and this type of TV/media, we have to figure out a way to break into that. I believe we’re missing that vote.
BPR: You’ve said in the past that the Tea Party is all about fiscal issues: “Fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets. No social issues—we don’t go there.” When an interviewer asked you if you were pro-choice, you said, “It doesn’t matter; we don’t talk about it.” Isn’t government spending in many instances inextricably linked to social issues? Whether it’s federal spending for needle exchange programs for HIV/AIDS prevention, or welfare policy, or funding for abortion, these are all very socially charged issues. How do you separate these fiscal issues from their social origins?
AK: At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if government is spending money on abortion or the Department of Defense. If the money is not there to spend, we don’t have it. We want government to live within their means. We really need to push on representatives to have a balanced budget. It’s kind of the same thing with earmarks. It’s not that I’m opposed to earmarks—if the money is there and it goes through the proper voting channels, and it gets through the committee, I have no problem with it. It’s when earmarks are used to get a member of congress to vote a certain way and it’s stuck in a 2500-page bill, and nobody knows about it, that we have a problem. We’re not all going to agree on all social issues, so why not stick to what most of us can agree on, which is that Washington can live within their means, and the social issues will take care of themselves. People can work on that on a local and state level.
BPR: With respect to Ukraine, Tea Party organizations and representatives, including Marco Rubio, have seized on Crimea as an example of American waning influence and Obama’s lack of fortitude on the international stage. If a central tenet of the Tea Party is advocating against “big government” and excessive spending domestically, how does the party reconcile that with an interventionist foreign policy?
AK: I don’t think that’s a specifically Tea Party issue. I think people agree that we’re not the superpower that we used to be, that our influence is waning. Many people would agree that President Reagan’s view of “peace through strength” is a good position. I think more than anything maybe that’s what concerns people within the Tea Party movement and within our military, that our troops are not getting the resources they need, etc. There’s a big libertarian part of the tea party movement. It’s interesting that as time has gone on, I think more and more people see themselves as possibly libertarians. But because we don’t focus on it, it’s not something we can comment on.
BPR: Looking ahead through the rest of the midterm elections, some people have argued that the debt limit-shutdown issue is played out. The GOP is now unified in its opposition to the ACA, so the Tea Party can’t necessarily distinguish itself on that basis. The Tea Party recently lost a crucial seat in Texas to Senator John Cornyn. Are these things evidence of the party’s fading influence?
AK: John Cornyn didn’t have a legitimate challenger. I know Congressman Stockman was running against him…but you can’t announce your candidacy three months out in the state of Texas which is huge and so expensive and be a legitimate candidate, unless you can self-fund it. And even then, you’d have a hard time. So I do not think that is a legitimate example of our supposed waning influence.
BPR: We know the talking points on both sides regarding the Affordable Care Act, so I don’t think there’s a huge amount of value in rehashing old arguments. But I’d like to talk about the rhetoric. A lot of the time, it tends to be absolute—people are either 100% for it or 100% against it. I’m wondering if the Tea Party acknowledges anything beneficial about some of the safeguards that the ACA puts in place and whether you’d like to see any aspects of it retained if it were to be reworked.
AK: First of all, I, nor anyone else, is qualified to speak for the movement as a whole. Even within the Tea Party Express, we don’t agree on everything. I think when you go out and talk to people within the movement, I’m sure that you’ll get them to see there probably are some good things about the Affordable Care Act. The reason that I don’t support the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as we call it — is because government should not be involved in my healthcare. I don’t think our healthcare system, necessarily, needed overhauling. Perhaps our insurance industry and system did. I think it’s good to be able to take your health insurance with you when you change jobs. You should own it—the portability part of it. There are free market solutions that will work. The Act’s stance on preexisting conditions is another aspect many people would agree with.
BPR: The annual conference for conservative activists, CPAC, took place last month. One of the seminars during the conference was a discussion called, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Get Along?” What are your thoughts on this?
AK: I think one of the biggest questions is, “How do you win without youth voters?” These kids are libertarians for the most part. They don’t care—they just want the government out of their lives. I’ve taken my daughter to events that are supposed to be centered on fiscal issues, and if someone gets up and starts talking about gay marriage and abortion, you lose [the youth] and they leave. That’s not what they’re interested in. They’re concerned with getting jobs. But at the same time, you can’t win without the base of social conservatives…How do we move forward with both libertarians and social conservatives? I don’t have the answer.
BPR: I might push back on the idea that young voters are apathetic towards social issues. Don’t you think those are more salient for young people? Regardless of whether they’re left or right leaning, aren’t social issues the ones they really tend to focus on?
AK: When I talk about the kids and that demographic, you’re right, there are a number of them that are strong social conservatives, and you also have the strong progressives who support people like Wendy Davis in Texas. But to me, if you’re a social conservative that’s your issue and it doesn’t matter what your age is. I think it’s great that the kids are taking a stand and they believe strongly whatever their principles are. But as we’ve seen with Rand and [libertarian] Ron Paul, there are large numbers of supporters that are young adults.
BPR: What are your thoughts on the 2016 presidential election?
AK: Honestly, I’m concerned that we can’t lose Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul, because they’re going to run for the Senate. That would leave Mike Lee alone in the Senate to hold what we’ve gained in these five short years. That’s why 2014 is so important that we get more conservatives to be our back-up bench to give him support. My concern about 2016 is that the Republicans lost because a lot of people sat home in 2012, and I’m concerned that the GOP will push the moderate candidate down our throats and again…you’re going to see a split and we’re not going to win. I also think Rick Perry will get involved again. While everyone wants to say Chris Christie is going to be the one, I’m not so sure. A lot can happen between now and then.
BPR: Let’s just say for argument’s sake that it is a Christie–Clinton race. Presumably, you won’t want to support the Democratic candidate. How do you transform all the work you’ve done campaigning for these Tea Party candidates to get behind a GOP nominee? How do you switch gears?
AK: Back in 2012, I was asked on Fox News, if Romney became the nomineee, whether the Tea Party would support him. I said if Mitt Romney becomes the nominee, then he’s going to become the nominee with the support of the Tea Party movement, because I don’t think the person who gets the nomination can do it without the Tea Party movement. This is an interesting point—if you go back and look at the 2012 exit polling, Mitt Romney did have Tea Party support. People who aren’t necessarily affiliated with the Tea Party movement still support the same ideals and goals we stand for. That’s how I think Mitt Romney got the support. So regarding Christie, if the movement is still in place by 2016, and I don’t know how we wouldn’t be, I don’t think he could win without our support.
BPR: A few polls might challenge that last point. The Pew Poll from 6 months ago said 49% of independents held an explicitly negative view of the Tea Party, 42% of moderate to liberal Republicans held a negative view, and an NBC-Washington poll found that only 23% of Americans expressed a positive view of the party. So how do the numbers add up for a GOP nominee needing the Tea Party’s support to win?
AK: First, the media has demonized us so badly, and the progressive left has too. The polling data doesn’t surprise me. Second, like I said, people might not consider themselves “Tea Party” but they agree on the core principles. So like with Romney, where nobody expected to say he had Tea Party support (but he did), I think it would be the same dynamic of the 2012 campaign in 2016. So whoever wins in 2016 is going to have to do it with the support of the movement. When people start learning about the Tea Party movement, they realize the Tea Party isn’t a bunch of racist, bigoted, social conservatives. You know, we do have some wing-nuts, some people on the fringe of the party. But so does the left. That’s why we try to stay focused on the economy and the constitution.
BPR: If the media distorts your message or places sound bytes out of context, as you’ve said they have done, what is the process like for damage control? How do you, as the head of the Tea Party Express, deal with these problems?
AK: When Fox News took my comments about Tea Party ‘endorsement’ of Mitt Romney out of context, we put out a press release, and the media picked it up. I’ll generally tweet about it and post on Facebook. We try to use social media as much as possible—the fact is, the [Tea Party] movement was born out of Twitter. We were talking earlier about people blogging about the recent SCOTUS ruling—people were blogging out it before the traditional media was even covering it. News breaks on Twitter—you know that. It’s definitely changed our lives.