In 2010, the young movement known as the Tea Party began to sweep a new generation of leaders into power. Six years later, the movement will face the ultimate test of its longevity – whether it can shake up presidential politics and put one of its own in the White House.
Though the 2012 election was technically the first presidential cycle after the emergence of the Tea Party, that wasn't really a fair test of the movement's influence. Typically, even in today's accelerated political climate, a fair bit of time has to elapse between when politicians get elected to their first major office and when they can mount serious presidential campaigns.
When the last presidential race started in 2011, the first wave of Tea Party candidates had only been in office for a few months. As such, the race was comprised of names from the past such as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, or others who tried to fill the Tea Party void but were ultimately not serious contenders, such as Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann.
In the end, the 2012 election fit the mold of most Republican presidential nomination contests, in which the establishment candidate who is viewed as "next in line" wins.
But 2016 is significantly different, because the wave of Tea Party candidates who started getting elected in 2010 have now achieved the political ripeness to run for higher office.
In 2012, Romney was able to capture the nomination despite his liberal governing record and glaring deficiencies as a candidate simply because no credible alternative emerged. This time around, the establishment favorite, Jeb Bush, faces much stiffer competition against candidates who could legitimately claim to be more viable in a general election against Hillary Clinton.
It's worth recalling that the Tea Party was born out of frustration with the administration of George W. Bush, as he cast aside small government principles to trample on local control of schools, fight for the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society, and deliver a massive bailout to Wall Street.
Though President Obama's election and push for national healthcare galvanized the movement, those sympathetic to the Tea Party were always fighting a parallel battle to push the Republican Party to shrink government and adhere more closely to the U.S. Constitution.
The movement has met with mixed success. The energy of the Tea Party was instrumental in fueling the Republican takeover of the House and Senate, forcing some spending restraint, and depriving Obama of any significant legislative accomplishments since 2010.
On the other hand, Obamacare still exists, entitlements are wreaking havoc with the nation's long-term finances, and lawmakers still routinely ignore Constitutional limits on federal power. Republican leaders in the House and Senate still have the excuse that Obama is president and will veto any serious attempt to rein in Washington. But 2016 could change that – depending on who Republicans choose as their nominee.
If Republicans choose a legacy candidate such as Bush, or a champion of big government such as John Kasich, it would be a fatal blow to the Tea Party. It would mean that whatever the influence the movement has or had, it could never hope to break the highest glass ceiling.
It would mean that when push came to shove, the Tea Party couldn't shake up the presidential nominating process that has punished conservatives for decades with lackluster candidates including Romney, John McCain and Bob Dole.
If, however, Republican voters break this pattern in 2016, it would show that despite the many obituaries that have been written for the Tea Party movement, it's still a disruptive force in American politics.