In case you’re keeping track, the supposedly sleepy and deflated tea party has been racking up the score against liberal foes and establishment Republicans over the past couple of months.
For more than a year, as the tea partiers reorganized and regrouped following the 2010 elections, an evolution has been taking place. The hundreds of local groups that still exist across America are becoming more substantive, more strategic and more organized. The tea party is growing up and as a result it remains a potent political force not just against liberal forces but as an accountability mechanism for a GOP that has too often underwhelmed the conservative grassroots. Just ask the soon-to-be former senator from Indiana.
Dick Lugar had a long and storied career in public service, rising from school board to one of the longest-serving members of the Senate. He won re-election time and time again despite continuously distancing himself from his constituents. Why? Because he could get away with it ”” until he went head to head with the tea party.
Lugar’s disconnect from Indiana voters was punctuated by his increasingly Beltway-centric lifestyle and worldview. He co-sponsored the DREAM Act and helped lead the fight for the New START treaty, just to name a few of the egregious cases. Lugar’s Ruling Class sense of entitlement caused him to understand the threats too late. While he had a sizable war chest, he started campaigning late, resorting to thin character attacks on his opponent. More importantly, over the past several years, he virtually ignored the local grassroots and tea party members, though he did take the time to tell the tea party to “get real” about START. They did “get real” with Lugar when they came out in force and sent a message not just to Lugar, but to every Republican who takes their support for granted. The score in the GOP Senate primary race: roughly 60%-40% for the tea party-supported candidate, Richard Mourdock.
In Nebraska, Attorney General Jon Bruning was supposed to win his Senate primary in a walk. But Nebraska’s tea party members wanted a fresh face, one of their own and a reliable conservative. Between the support for Don Stenberg and the support for the eventual winner, State Senator Deb Fischer, the movement helped galvanize conservative voters across the state, producing a major upset victory. When you add Stenberg and Fischer’s vote totals, the score was roughly 60% against the establishment. Fischer’s win sets up a favorable contrast for the general election between a former senator with a fiscally liberal record in Bob Kerrey, who has spent the last several years living in Manhattan, and a small business owner with a history of cutting taxes.
Down in the Lone Star State, Ted Cruz was under attack by long-time Lt. Governor David Dewhurst. The Texas primary showed that the tea party and conservative grassroots have the ability to fight and win on the ground even with bombs raining down from the air.
Despite having the resources, Dewhurst’s senior leadership opted not to execute an aggressive grassroots effort (did I mention they were also Rick Perry’s team, which might explain a thing or two). The results speak for themselves. Cruz’s poll numbers as late as a week before the primary had him in the 20s in the three-way race. Yet on primary day he garnered 34% of the vote, forcing a runoff that now gives him a head-to-head fight that, while very tough, he can win.
In Wisconsin, tea party members led an historic drive to defend Scott Walker’s policies, resulting in a massive victory for taxpayers in that state and a redefining of conservatives’ national fight to end America’s fiscal crisis. The Wisconsin effort also highlighted the maturation process among local tea party groups, many of whom used the latest technology platforms, like Gravity, to target, message, track and mobilize voters. This, combined with their traditional grassroots tactics, resulted in turnout that in many areas exceeded projections by more than 60%.
The tea party’s success in 2012 is due to a range of factors, but its own evolution from a protest movement to a more tactical, substantive operation is the biggest reason. The fiscally conservative, pro-growth message hasn’t changed, but the messengers and methods have. The tea party is picking better candidates this year than it did in 2010, when local groups were either co-opted or ignored by the likes of Tea Party Express and other phony, “corporate” entities that rammed bad choices down the throats of inexperienced local leaders. The result then was the selection of candidates who were train wrecks and damaged the movement’s credibility.
This year, local groups are far more involved than they were in 2010, and they are making much better choices. There will be no Christine O’Donnells or Sharron Angles in 2012. Mourdock, Fischer and Cruz will be substantive, credible and formidable opponents for their liberal Democratic opposition. Their adoption of new mobilization strategies is demonstrating to even well-heeled progressive groups that the game is changing on the conservative side.
The tea party is no longer the mouse that roared. It’s a lion and it’s here to stay. Republicans and Democrats ”” the left ”” beware.