Illinois Shows Limitations of Tea Party Movement

The Tea Party folks keep getting mad at me for saying that in the end they might prove ineffective in races at levels higher than local because they aren’t organized enough. They puff up their chests proudly proclaiming that they intend to resist being organized and they claim that being organized is precisely what they are fighting against. I understand the feeling, even sympathize quite a lot, but there is a problem with this obstinacy. It means they won’t win on a statewide ballot very often. The Illinois primary just proved me correct, too.

Let’s take the race for Senate in Illinois as exhibit “A.” Of course the good old boys in the state party went with Mark Kirk, the center left candidate from a northern suburb of Chicago. He was the he-can-win candidate and the establishment choice. Not one Tea Party group, though, wants Kirk and for good reason — and I heartily concur with them, as it happens. So who was the “Tea Party candidate,” the one meant to beat out Kirk, the one backed by the newly found power of the Tea Party movement? There wasn’t one. There was three.

Sadly, the Tea Partiers in Illinois split their vote all up. Some Tea Party Groups went with Don Lowery and some went with Patrick Hughes. A few even went with John Arrington. Hughes, of course, was the only one that had even a remote chance as far as voter polls were concerned. Hughes at least registered in the polls, Lowery and Arrington barely showed up at all.

Now, I like Mr. Lowery to be sure. He is a great fellow and has some fantastic principles. I can see why Tea Party groups are attracted to him. I feel the same way about Mr. Arrington. On the other hand, the same can be said of Hughes (disclosure, I endorsed Hughes). The problem is not that one or the other Tea Party group chose the wrong candidate, it’s that they didn’t choose the same candidate. They petered away their votes by choosing three candidates allowing Mark Kirk to run away with it.

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There was the same problem with the six candidates that were running for the GOP nomination for Governor. Tea Party groups spilt their votes between Dan Proft and Adam Andrzejewski. Andrzejewski got a last minute surge from Tea Partiers, but it was too late to help. But if you combined the polling numbers that Proft and Andrzejewski were seeing into one that number was a winning number. Unfortunately, the vote was spilt between the two candidates, not settled on just one of them.

The sad fact is that the Illinois Tea Party groups didn’t spend any time organizing, polling each other, coordinating with each other. There was no effort from one Tea Party group to reach out to another one and work together. They all stayed in their own little area, met in their own little meetings, had their own little candidates forum, and made their own little decisions.

This method is fine for village elections or State Reps and State Senators. It’s likely even good for County elections. But it does not work for federal elections or statewide elections where several candidates per office are vying for attention and support. Sure this method is particularly important and powerful for local elections, it just doesn’t work at higher levels than that.

Now, let’s look where the Tea Party movement has been effective on a larger than local level. Doug Hoffman in NY 23 caught the interest of Tea Party groups across the country, so did Scott Brown in Massachusetts. And why was this? It was because of groups like Eric Odom’s American Liberty Alliance, Dick Armey’s Freedomworks, and Americans For Prosperity among others. It was also because of the national exposure that talk radio and TV gave these races. These are groups and entities organized on a national basis, groups that have offices throughout the country, groups that are, well, organized.

In essence, whether you want to believe it or not, the outpouring of support for Doug Hoffman and Scott Brown was organized (even if by a confluence of events) on a national level, not on a local one. These two races happened in a hurry due to forces beyond a local Tea Party level. These were causes that the local Tea Party folks signed onto quickly, yes, but were efforts they didn’t initiate.

And this is precisely what I mean. The Hoffman and Brown races were handed to the Tea Party movement on a silver platter not ones they worked hard to create. We have yet to see a race created at a local level, built through the grass roots, and organized for victory at the hands of the Tea Party groups. Illinois failed to show such organization at any level higher than a local race.

Recently J.P. Freire triumphantly reported that a year after the first Tea Party protests began to appear they’ve proven not to represent a “mass conspiracy” but are instead a true movement.

The tea parties are the success of everyday citizens clamoring to protect something they feel is endangered by the growth of government. These are not political mavens — they’re better at running a business and a family than they are at developing talking points for prime time (a fact I learned while organizing the first D.C. tea party in front of the White House last February).

I agree and applaud this truth. But what does it mean politically if none of this voter interest and passion can be channeled to real political victories at the ballot box? I submit that it is meaningless and might even lead to more cynicism among voters when they come to realize that all of their political passion has resulted in no political change.

One thing is sure, if Tea Party groups want to become a political force for good, they have to coordinate farther out than their own towns and county. If they don’t they will risk making themselves irrelevant just as they did in the Senate race and Governor race in Illinois. That means organizing, whether they like it or not because organization wins elections. It’s just that simple.

The Tea Party folks certainly do not have to take on all the characteristics of the failed Party organizations they oppose. But they must get over this fear of organizing. If they don’t they will not be able to wield the power they might actually have behind them. Worse the parties that are a bit scared of them right now will surely find themselves able to ignore the Tea Parties if they ultimately find no threat from them.

And that would be a shame, indeed.

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