Rebel, Rebel

Tea Party Prepared to Fight the GOP Forever, Even After Tuesday’s Losses

The insurgents lost to the establishment in several primaries this week, but they say the fight to control began five years ago and will go on for more.

Bill Clark/Getty

Is that a tri-corner hat poking up from the grave?

A day after a series of defeats in primaries in North Carolina and Ohio, Tea Party activists there and across the nation dismissed the results, insisting that rumors of their demise death were greatly exaggerated.

“I feel pretty good. We had a series of goals and we over-achieved,” said Tom Zawistowski, a Tea Party leader in Ohio. There a challenger to House Speaker John Boehner, who is among Tea Partiers almost as reviled a figure as Barack Obama, lost by 60 points, and first-term Rep. David Joyce beat a Tea Party-backed challenger by 10 points.

“We were in it down to the last minute and we spent all of $75,000, and they spent all of $2 million,” Zawistowski said, referring to Joyce’s race against state lawmaker Matthew Lynch. “We were disappointed we didn’t win but we did prove that we could compete with their money with our people on the street.”

And Boehner, he said, “had to put some resources in. He won handily but it was the worst winning percentage he has had in many many years, he campaign more than he ever has, put more money in than he ever has. That shows there are people disgusted with his leadership.”

As he and other Tea Party activists in the Buckeye State see it, Tuesday night was just one battle in a long, long war. They point to the more than 65 candidates that ran for office up and down the ballot with Tea Party support, and the five allies they won their primaries for seats in the Ohio legislature.

“The Tea Party needs to learn you can’t rely on the Hail Mary every time. Most of football is blocking and tackling, and we need to build a bench,” he said, and referring to JD Winteregg, the Tea Party backed challenger to Boehner who only managed 15 percent of the vote, added, “ We can’t expect a high school French teacher who has no experience and say, ok, you run against John Boehner. We need to get you elected to county commission, to the Ohio House, and then run against Boehner. We are trying to learn how to participate in the process.”

National Tea Party groups pointed out that they were not much involved in the elections on Tuesday, and that regardless, the results should be viewed in the context of a five-year long running contest that has the GOP establishment still running scared.

“You win some, you lose some. The Tea Party has had a significant impact. That doesn’t mean you win them all,” said Sal Russo, chief strategist of the Tea Party Express.

In North Carolina, even as most Tea Party groups rallied around physician and activist Greg Brannon for his U.S. Senate primary against Thom Tillis, the Tea Party Express sat it out, mainly Russo said, due to a comfort level with the so-called “establishment” choices and because there was a lack of serious candidates who share their values.

“When we look at supporting a candidate, it is not only do they share our beliefs, but are they capable of putting together a successful campaign that can win a U.S. Senate seat. We weren’t convinced Brannon could do that and I think the results think for themselves.”

If Tea Party-type candidates hope to win and to gather the support of national organizations like his, they need to fist prove they are more viable.

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“It’s always the same. It’s always some guy coming to us and saying, ‘I’m the Tea Party candidate.’ Well, you have money, no ideas, no support, but if we give you a few million dollars you are going to win this?”

“You have to be in concert with the zeitgeist of the times. People are concerned about the increasing size and intrusiveness of the federal government, and Thom Tillis articulated that message quite well.”

But grassroots Tea Party groups in the Tarheel State are not so sure. When asked if the election results were disappointing, Debbie Arceneaux of the 9/12 Project in Polk County, in the western part of the state, said, “Oh God yes, absolutely.”

Referring to her incumbent Congressman who easily fended off a Tea Party challenger, she said, “We got old neo-Nazi Patrick McHenry back in there, and then we got RINO Republican Thom Tillis back in there, so that’s wonderful. For anybody that is a conservative it is a huge defeat for us.”

She added that in previous years, Republicans counted on folks like her to find candidates, and those candidates contributed to the 2010 takeover of the House. Now, the attitude among the establishment is, “You know what, we really don’t want those people.”

Arceneaux said that Tea Partiers like herself would “swallow our pride” and back the GOP nominees in November, and then it was back to work to return to constitutional principles.

“We have to do what we have always done. Just kind of suck it up and wait for two years from now.”

There were some silver linings, however. Adam Brandon, an executive vice-president at FreedomWorks, which invested in both the North Carolina Senate race and the Joyce-Lynch Ohio race, acknowledged that Tuesday was tough, but said the future was looking bright. He said that while his side invested in Get-Out-The-Vote operations that could be turned on again, the other side had to spend massively on TV ads to beat back their efforts.

“The empire is striking back. Darth Vader pulled out the force and bombed us with TV ads and direct mail,” he said. “If they want to win they have to bomb us back to the Stone Age. I don’t think that is very sustainable.”