Tea Party Time: The Making of a Political Uprising

A conservative revolt is shaking up the Republican Party nationwide. But are Democrats next?

  • Joshua Lott / Reuters

    People hold signboards during a "tea party" protest in Flagstaff, Arizona August 31, 2009. Organizers say the event is an effort to work against members of Congress who voted for higher spending and taxes. The midterms are still two months away, but already a lot of Tea Partiers are looking beyond the elections and working out where to go from here. Picture taken August 31, 2009.

    Delaware's Christine O'Donnell may be partial to pearls and proper skirt suits, but she talks like the leader of a rebel army. "When the people fear the government, there is tyranny," the newest Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate declared Tuesday night at a party to mark her victory over the nation's entire Republican establishment. "When the government fears the people, there is liberty."

    She attributed the line to Thomas Jefferson, an error that now adorns bumper stickers sold online for $2.99 a pop. In O'Donnell's telling, Jefferson's vision of the British monarch has been replaced by new threats: the Republican Party bosses in Wilmington and Washington and, most of all, the governing habits of President Obama. "We the people will have our voice heard in Washington once again," O'Donnell declared.

    Her words come straight from the political movement that elevated her to victory and shocked the political world — the diffuse collection of furies and frustrations that calls itself the Tea Party. It has no charter, no published manifesto and no governing council. Yet from Nevada's high desert to Kentucky's rolling coal hills, this movement has upended the elite of the Republican Party in 2010 and set its sights on remaking the U.S. Congress — and, in 2012, the presidency. "It's more a cause than a campaign," O'Donnell told her roaring supporters in an Elks lodge. "And the cause is restoring America."

    The cause is also roiling America and the GOP. Not since Barry Goldwater thumbed his nose at country-club Republicans in 1964 has a rebel movement created such a crisis of legitimacy among the GOP establishment. And like that rebel movement, this one may spur an evolutionary change in the party that could last a generation. Back in April, when Florida's once popular governor, Charlie Crist, bolted from the GOP in the face of a conservative revolt in his state, some dismissed it as an isolated event, a symptom of state fissures and candidate quirkiness. When Utah Senator Bob Bennett choked back tears after losing renomination at a state convention in May, few thought such insurrection would spread beyond any but the reddest states. Then the upsets turned from a tremor into an earthquake. In the Senate races alone, Tea Party candidates in Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Alaska, Kentucky, Delaware and Florida declared victory, sometimes over rivals handpicked by Republican leaders in Washington.

    At a time of historic economic insecurity, the Tea Party movement has stolen the hearts of conservatives. It now has a chance to send as many as seven new Senators to Capitol Hill with their dreams of a radically smaller government, unfettered financial markets, defanged regulation and shrinking federal entitlements. Democrats have officially responded with celebration, citing polls that show that many of the newcomers' policy views and personal histories hold little appeal among the broader public. "Republicans chose extremists instead of mainstream candidates as their nominees," said Senator Bob Menendez, who is leading Democratic campaign efforts in the Senate, just hours after O'Donnell's victory. "This has made a handful of states demonstrably more competitive."

    But Democrats were spooked by what they were seeing even before the results in Delaware. Republicans have turned out in far greater numbers than Democrats in primaries this year, just as Democrats outvoted Republicans in 2008. What's more, Democrats fear the throw-the-bums-out fervor that stunned Republican incumbents this summer may topple the mostly Democratic incumbents in the fall. Finally, it may be difficult for Obama to claim that a vote for the Republican Party represents a return to the past when the GOP is being so dramatically upended and overhauled. "The Administration's ability to make that argument has been weakened by the very vociferous changes that have happened in the Republican Party," says William Galston, a former adviser to Bill Clinton.

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