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09.17.10

The Tea Party Is Smarter Than You Think

Sure, the movement may have a few fruitcakes, says Mark McKinnon, but it’s also backed surprise performers like Sharron Angle and Rand Paul—and all the establishment and media scorn just sends more campaign donations their way.

The reaction of those on the left and some within the Republican establishment to Tuesday’s “power to the people” moment in Delaware has been emotional and at times irrational. Ironically, those are the same charges leveled by the entrenched at members of the Tea Party “mob.”

The good news out of this election season for Republicans is the Tea Party is capturing the anti-establishment energy in America. The bad news is that the Republican establishment is not immune to that energy.

Those inside the Beltway have been slow to recognize the new breed of candidate emerging on the right. These conservative candidates are not professional politicians. They sometimes say the wrong thing. They often irritate the self-anointed because their pasts are not pedigreed. And they sometimes have “real people” problems.

While there may be a few fruitcakes among the bunch and some may be flawed—as if those already in D.C. aren’t—they are real. And some of them are real interesting. 

Take Sean Duffy (R-WI), running for the once safe seat of retiring Rep. Dave Obey (D-WI), open for the first time in four decades. A world-champion lumberjack, MTV reality star, one of 11 children, and father of six, Duffy is a papa grizzly. But don’t let the red plaid shirt fool you; he’s no rube or hick. A 10-year special prosecutor and district attorney,  Duffy has a better than 90 percent trial success rate. In a hypothetical matchup before the primary, Duffy polled nine points ahead of his opponent, state Sen. Julie Lassa (D-WI). 

And despite all the prognostications of the punditry, other Tea Party-backed candidates like Duffy continue to grow in popularity in the polls. Once thought unelectable, Marco Rubio (R-FL) now leads the politically bipolar Gov. Charlie Crist (I-FL) by 14 points. Other primary surprises, Joe Miller in Alaska, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Ken Buck in Colorado, and Sharron Angle in Nevada, all have momentum on their side in these last two months before November’s elections. 

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The establishment candidates have forgotten the rules of effective campaign messaging: Rationale matters, emotion always trumps intellect, and relevance rules. Voters just don’t trust incumbents who have been part of the political machine since before some of these new candidates were born. 

Just 25 percent of likely voters believe the current policies of the federal government have put the country on the right course. Sixty-five percent of all voters are angry, and 40 percent are very angry. And that anger is turning into action—folks are opening their wallets. 

Christine O’Donnell (R-DE) may want to put Chris Matthews and Charles Krauthammer on her payroll. Every time she is ridiculed, the cash register rings. 

Christine O’Donnell (R-DE) may want to put Chris Matthews and Charles Krauthammer on her payroll. Every time she is ridiculed, the cash register rings. As of Friday morning,  O’Donnell’s campaign has raised nearly $1.5 million online.  

As in nature, politics abhors a vacuum. Without a strong voice for more moderate leadership, the Tea Party is filling that vacuum. 

With its “Don’t Tread on Me” flags waving, the Tea Party’s warning to both Rs and Ds is clear. Be careful when you poke a snake; it only makes ’em madder and more likely to strike back.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.