The Shutdown Showdown, the Tea Party and Emptying Nesters

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To shut down or not to shut down?

As the budget battles go on in Congress, that is the question in Washington. And in recent days it seems the momentum toward a shutdown has grown. On Monday morning members of the conservative Tea Party Nation group received an email with the rather unambiguous subject line: "Let the Government Shut Down!"

The bravado is not a complete surprise to Patchwork Nation.

During the congressional recess we attended a town hall meeting for freshman GOP Rep. Rich Nugent in Lake County, Fla., and heard the same thing coming from members of a very conservative audience there. Lake is an Emptying Nest county in Florida and home to Clermont, a small town that we have been visiting for more than three years now, and many there say the conservative politics of the place have grown much more intense in the past year to 18 months.

On Nugent's trip home he not only held a regular constituent town hall meeting in Lake County to give people a chance to air their concerns, he also held a separate Tea Party meeting that, according to reports, actually featured a bigger turnout. The meaning? In a county full of seniors and retirees, the conservative wing of the GOP is the ascendant force of local politics. And its members are in no mood for compromise -- at least for now.

But the power of the Tea Party in Emptying Nests like Clermont may soon face some new challenges.

Growing Anger

To be clear, Lake and Clermont (home to two gated, over-55 golf course communities), were never bastions of liberalism. Like other Emptying Nests, the natural political tendency had a rightward bent. And in 2008, candidate Barack Obama only did about four percentage points better in Lake than Sen. John Kerry did in 2004 -- 43 percent to 39 percent respectively.

But, as we have noted in more detailed reporting, the area was hit especially hard in the recession. Seniors who had money in the stock market took a very big hit and unlike younger investors did not have a lot of time to make their money back. Lake has been hammered by foreclosures, more than 2,400 currently, and by falling home values. And unemployment fell in February, but the rate still stands at 11.5 percent -- hardly news to celebrate.

In short, there is a lot for people to be unhappy about in Clermont and Lake. Add those feelings to an already conservative environment and you get the growth in the Tea Party that is now evident there.

At a city council meeting two weeks ago in Clermont, a Lake County commissioner showed up in the front row with two leaders of the South Lake Tea Party members, said one attendee, who wanted to remain anonymous due to political concerns. Nothing remotely controversial was being discussed. The group just sat and listened quietly.

"The message was, 'We're here and we're watching,'" said the attendee.

Ray Goodgame, Clermont's mayor pro tempore who considers himself a Republican but not a Tea Party supporter, says the group has grown dramatically. "The party still has their meetings and they continue drawing a large crowd," he says. "There are many retired attendees who are worried about cuts in Medicare and Social Security. They are under the impression that the Tea party will not make any changes."

Tea Party Challenges Going Forward

And somewhere in there is the potential rub for the Tea Party.

As we have noted often on this site, the Tea Party is less a movement than a loosely organized set of local groups motivated by one concern in particular -- dissatisfaction with the federal government, especially deficit spending. That's a pretty big organizing principle and one bound to have many supporters.

But when you dig into specifics, there is less cohesion. Some local groups are especially concerned with immigration. Some have a religious bent. Some are proudly atheist and libertarian.

Nugent's presentation focused on the need to cut government spending, but also touched on the bigger issue of entitlement reform, an issue the GOP has promised to address and one that Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, is focused on. In his presentation Nugent used charts to how entitlement spending (or as he called it "autopilot spending") had grown from 42 percent of the budget in 1970 to a projected 76 percent in 2040.

There were many questions and comments from constituents about government waste and the need for tax reform -- including one speaker who said they should shut the government down -- but there were ultimately few comments about how the "autopilot spending" would be addressed.

The literature Nugent handed out emphasized that there would be "no changes for seniors." But, of course, tackling entitlement spending -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- is an extremely complicated task, particularly without raising taxes. And one that Emptying Nest communities like Clermont will watch closely.

The Tea Party appears to draw particularly well with older, white voters like those that populate the Emptying Nests. Without their support, the movement would look very different.

On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan introduced his budget proposal, calling for more than $5 trillion in cuts over the next decade, including changes to those entitlement programs. The question is: how will those proposed changes be greeted, especially by Emptying Nest communities.

The answer to that question will likely play a big role not only in how serious Ryan's proposals are taken but in what happens in the current Washington "shutdown" showdown. If places like Clermont are unsatisfied or concerned with the GOP entitlement plans, the debate in these places could turn quickly.