THE BLOG
06/25/2014 09:38 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2014

Tea Iced!

Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

The more I write articles examining the Tea Party phenomenon in detail, the more impressed I am at how versatile the concept of "tea" is when it comes to creating metaphors -- especially when it comes time to write the article's headline. There is, after all, a long list to choose from: weak tea, strong tea, bitter tea, sweet tea, iced tea, tea party (as in "ain't just a..." or perhaps the mad-hattery of Alice's Wonderland), tea leaves (and how to read them), instant tea, the "Nestea plunge," sun tea, Texas tea, tea for two, teapot (and the tempests they brew), green tea, black tea, mint tea, herbal tea, chai tea, breakfast tea, tea ceremonies, and even (should you be historically inclined) the scandalous Teapot Dome. And that's even intentionally avoiding things like: the fracas in Boston which started it all; the naive "tea bag" label initially used by the Tea Partiers themselves (before they realized what it meant in modern sexual slang); Dirk Gently and The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul (from Douglas Adams); and, of course, the aristocratic Earl and Lady Grey. This still leaves a rich metaphorical brew to contemplate, however, when writing a headline. Today, as we all sort through last night's defeat of the Tea Party candidate in the Mississippi Senate race, I decided to go with the inverted: "Tea Iced!" Please forgive me if you've heard it before, but I do try to rotate among the metaphorical choices, for variety.

Enough digression, though. Last night, Senator Thad Cochran pulled off an upset of sorts, by defeating his Tea Party primary challenger in the rematch atmosphere of a "top two" runoff election. His chance of victory had been seen by many (at least before the election results began coming in) as increasingly unlikely -- which is why the political world is abuzz over what just happened down in the Magnolia State. Consider the fact that Cochran came in second in the original primary, and it was only due to a third candidate being in the race that he was even given the second chance of a runoff election (because main Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel failed to reach 50 percent of the vote, to put this another way). Because of this, and because of what was perceived as the growing national momentum of the Tea Party after Eric Cantor's epic defeat (more on this in a moment), it seemed Cochran was doomed. The energy was supposed to mostly be on the Tea Party's side, and turnouts for runoff elections are notoriously low, so most watchers of politics had all but written off Cochran's chances to pull off an upset victory. And yet, against all this conventional wisdom, Cochran still won -- he successfully "iced out" the Tea Party.

The finger-pointing and blame-gaming has already begun from the disappointed Tea Partiers. Chris McDaniel even refused to concede defeat last night, when all the votes had been counted. Many pointed to the (relatively) high turnout among African-Americans and other Democrats, whose votes Cochran had actively sought in the runoff election. Dark murmurings were heard that the "Democrats stole our primary" and other such sour grapes. Republicans have an overwhelming advantage come November, so some Democratic voters apparently decided it was worth jumping into the race (since yesterday's Republican runoff may actually determine who will represent them in the Senate for the next six years). Better to vote for a non-Tea Party Republican than to cling to the slim hopes that a Democrat could have beaten the Tea Partier in the general election, they might have figured. It does make a certain degree of sense.

But no matter how he won, Cochran did win. Fifty years after the Freedom Summer in Mississippi (which registered disenfranchised black voters and led to much racist violence), the Tea Partiers decided it'd be a good idea to send their own "election observers" to Democratic districts, just to keep an eye on things. This was an exceptionally vicious race all around, with people illegally posting photos of Cochran's ailing wife (who is in a nursing facility), and Cochran himself even seeming to make an appeal to the pro-bestiality voters in his state (I wish I were making this up, but I am not) -- by reminiscing about how he grew up in Mississippi, doing "all kinds of indecent things with animals." This even prompted an opposing ad which followed audio of Cochran's comment with: "Baaaa! Tell Thad Cochran you're no farm animal. And you are not going to take being on the receiving end of his so-called fun any longer." Hoo boy. That's certainly a memorable political ad, to put it mildly.

It was an ideologically odd race, too -- with Cochran running ads in the past few weeks which praised all the government spending he brought back to the state because "it means jobs." Not exactly Republican boilerplate, in other words. Then again, Mississippi does get back about three dollars for every one it sends to Washington (the whole state is a "taker" in the ultra-conservative lexicon), so perhaps such appeals work a little better in Mississippi than they might in other states.

What struck me about Cochran's victory, though, isn't so much how it fits into the standard "Republican civil war" storyline. Oh, sure, everyone's been talking about the fight between the Tea Party and the Establishment Republican faction for a while now, simply because it is the most obvious division in the GOP. But what I wonder is whether Cochran's victory proves a subtler point -- how there are really two Tea Parties, and how there is still a lot of bad feeling between the two.

This division appeared almost immediately after the Tea Party came into being. Initially, the Tea Party was disorganized and grassroots and organic. With lighting speed, however, some well-heeled political machines tried to glom onto the Tea Party label and claim it as their own. Dick Armey (and others) saw the Tea Party as a wonderful fundraising tool, and they blatantly tried to co-opt the entire movement with groups such as the "Tea Party Express" (and many others). Suddenly, events which had sprang into being in viral fashion began to be overshadowed by crowds of people arriving in giant air-conditioned buses, paid for by big-money Washington lobbyists.

There was an initial backlash to this, and a split developed between what might be called the grassroots Tea Partiers and the AstroTurf Tea Partiers. The originators of the movement resented the co-opters, sometimes bitterly. This divide was never really spotlighted in all the press the Tea Party got, however, so to most Americans the Tea Party became rather monolithic.

But what I now wonder is whether we're seeing the limits of the big-money Tea Party, and perhaps a resurgence of the original grassroots Tea Party. Consider the difference between yesterday's runoff in Mississippi and what happened to Eric Cantor, a few weeks ago. First, here is a snippet of an article in the Washington Post (written before the Mississippi runoff), which profiled Jenny Beth Martin, the leader of the Tea Party Patriots:

In from Georgia, Martin has been spending much of the past three weeks in [Mississippi], holding conferences, making fundraising calls, meeting with local chapters of the Tea Party, and yes, walking door-to-door to turn out the vote for conservative Senate hopeful Chris McDaniel. But unlike most volunteers here, as the head of the national Tea Party Patriots, a group she co-founded and helped bring to national prominence, she's on track to make $450,000 this year doing all this, according to the latest Federal Election Commission reports and Internal Revenue Service filings. And to top that off, the group's latest disclosures also note that she is allowed to travel first-class on any domestic flight she takes as president of the organization -- although her lawyer says she doesn't take advantage of the perk.

Add this to the recent news (also from the Post) that the big Tea Party political action committees seem to be much more concerned with reaping megabucks in donations then they are about actually spending any of that money on actual candidacies, and what you get is an appreciation for how big a money-making machine the Tea Party label truly represents.

Now, as P. T. Barnum often pointed out, there will always be rubes, and there will always also be those who are more than willing to fleece them. It's a basic fact of American life. This doesn't diminish the further up the income scale you go, either. Big-bucks donors fund the Tea Party AstroTurf to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. But one has to wonder whether the original Tea Party grassroots really sprang into being for the purpose of allowing lobbyists to pay themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

The big Tea Party organizations actually did drop a bundle on the Mississippi race, because they thought it'd be their best chance to unseat a Republican senator in the primaries. The other high-profile races they chose to fund have all crashed and burned pretty spectacularly (Lindsey Graham, once thought of as the number one target for the Tea Party, won so decisively in his own primary that he didn't even have to face a runoff, just to give one example). In all the other states Tea Partiers sunk money into, their candidates were all beaten -- sometimes by overwhelming margins. Two Tea Party groups alone sunk almost $4.5 million into the Mississippi race, and while they got very close, they came up short in the end. That is, to be blunt, not a lot of bang for your buck. The only Tea Party candidates for Senate who have managed to win their state's Republican nomination all seem to be from states where the Democrat is going to win in November -- making such primary victories ultimately meaningless.

And then there is Eric Cantor's House district in Virginia. This has been the one shining moment for the Tea Party during the entire 2014 primary campaign -- taking down a sitting House Majority Leader in a primary (a feat never before accomplished). It's really the one big jewel (at least, so far) in the Tea Party's 2014 primary efforts. Except that it happened organically, without a dime invested by any of the big-money Tea Party organizations. It was a completely grassroots affair -- indeed, Tea Partier Dave Brat got outspent something like 25-to-1 by Cantor, and it didn't matter.

Now, it's tough to draw sweeping conclusions from all of this, for a number of reasons. The biggest of which was the major dissatisfaction of Cantor's own constituents, the depths of which were underestimated by just about everyone. As Michael Moore might have observed, a ficus plant wearing a Tea Party banner might have beaten Eric Cantor this particular year. Also, Senate races are statewide, unlike House races which are often decided by only a few hundred votes. So it's probably too early to claim there is any sort of trend of grassroots Tea Partiers being more successful than the giant AstroTurf Tea Party political machines. One House election does not exactly a trend make, in other words. Yet it certainly is an interesting development.

The Republican Party as a whole has a clear goal for the 2014 general election: winning back control of the Senate. The base voters have been a lot more discriminating this time around when it comes to choosing candidates who can be counted on not to torpedo their whole campaign with one stupid offhand remark. If you add up the races neophyte Tea Party candidates have lost in the last two election cycles (which should have been easily winnable), the Republicans could have taken control of the Senate before now, in fact. The base Republican voters, this time around, seem to understand this in a way they didn't in 2010 and 2012.

Still, it is interesting that for all the major 2014 races into which the big-bucks Tea Party organizations have sunk their money, they have so far come up with nothing more than a sour lemon slice to suck on. Meanwhile, in the one race they all thought wasn't worth investing any money in, the sweet tea flowed from the grassroots to David Brat. The brew (or brouhaha, perhaps) in Cantor's district was a lot more satisfying to the voters, while the Tea Party mega-organizations got completely iced out in places like South Carolina, Kentucky, and Mississippi. Which brings us right back where we started, with an overflowing frosty jug of tea metaphors (which makes this as good a place to end as any).

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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