Tea Party activists claim some credit for Scott Brown's Senate upset in Massachusetts, and there's good evidence that the decentralized movement played an important, albeit indirect, role.
Way back last April 15, Brown courted the movement by appearing at two anti-tax Tea Party events. "I've been up there for 11 years, and I've never voted for one tax increase.... You have to hold your legislators accountable," he told the crowd at a rally in Worcester. Those Tea Party activists provided much of the initial support for the campaign, partly because Brown's criticism of big government united local advocates driven by libertarian, social conservative or national security concerns.
The movement also aided in the home stretch, by facilitating a considerable share of the individual small-bore contributions that Brown's campaign credited with allowing him to match Democrat Martha Coakley in TV and radio advertising. Early on, his campaign hosted a fundraising breakfast that was sponsored by the Greater Boston Tea Party, although the group did not endorse him. More importantly, on Jan. 11 Brown put out an online appeal for a $500,000 "money bomb" of online donations. Money came in from donors nationwide so fast that the appeal netted $1.3 million for Brown in 24 hours. In subsequent days, Brown raised additional millions, which he used to fund a wave of TV and radio advertising.
"Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter enabled us to finance this campaign in the final stretch," Brown aide Eric Fehrnstrom told a reporter for National Review. "We didn't have to hold events to collect and had virtually no overhead involved. We were able to raise millions of dollars in the final week."
The state has roughly 7,000 Tea Party members organized into roughly a dozen groups, said Christen Varley, the lead organizer of the Greater Boston Tea Party. Her group has roughly 1,300 members, 300 of whom contributed $12,000 to the campaign on Jan. 2, she said. Almost half the members volunteered to work in phone banks, put up posters and e-mail pro-Brown testimonials to friends, she said. Varley added that the movement also spurred interests and donations from out-of-state Tea Party activists.
Varley said the group includes social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, libertarians and some people who voted for third-party candidate Joe Kennedy -- who identified himself as a principled libertarian and a candidate for the Tea Party members. But most members are fiscal conservatives who aren't registered Republicans or Democrats, Varley said. The group's general viewpoint, she said, is that "we need to show people they can do [things] for themselves.... They certainly don't need a bunch of elitist know-it-alls telling them how to live their lives."
The Brown victory will galvanize other Tea Party-backed campaigns in Massachusetts and elsewhere, Varley said. Members "want to know who's next.... I feel a little sorry for [Rep.] Barney Frank, because everyone is gunning for him." Because so many Tea Party people, including herself, are filling party posts, and 12 are volunteering to run for office, she said, "we're going to have primaries where we haven't had a candidate for four to five years."
On Election Day, Brown had close to 80,000 friends nationwide on Facebook, far more than Coakley's 15,000 friends. By election night, Brown had also far outpaced Coakley on YouTube, according to SearchEngineWatch.com. His 58 videos had attracted 774,314 views (which then jumped to 1.4 million by the end of the month). In contrast, Coakley's 59 videos had earned only 102,389 views on YouTube by election night.
At least one national-minded branch, the Tea Party Express group based in Sacramento, Calif., ran an ad on behalf of Brown. The ad ran on TV and online, at a cost of nearly $350,000, said spokesman Levi Russell. But some of the TV ads were run outside the Bay State -- partly to spur donations, but also to attract more support to the group, he said.
However, Brown did not advertise his support from Tea Party activists, identifying himself instead as a "Scott Brown Republican."
Democrats sought an advantage by tying him to the movement. On Jan. 13, for example, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., released a fundraising message that said Brown was a "far-right tea-bagger Republican." On the same day, the SEIU released a TV and online ad that said Brown was backed by an "extremist group that backed Sarah Palin." The ad cited support from the TeaPartyPatriots.org network, which urged its supporters to back Brown. But an election-night survey by Rasmussen showed that 40 percent of Bay State voters had a favorable view of the Tea Party movement, and 41 percent had an unfavorable view.
After the election, on Jan. 27, Brown announced a three-day tour of the state to thank his local activists. "There are so many of you I want to thank and I look forward to representing you in the United States Senate.... I truly appreciate all that you have done for this movement," said his press release.
Not every Tea Party activist is on board with Brown; some dismiss him as not conservative enough by national standards. But while Brown "is not a picture-perfect Tea Party guy that we would agree with on every issue," Russell said, "... he will be a powerful voice for Massachusetts, a big technical and emotional victory for the grassroots, who see him as their best bet to block the government takeover of the health care system." This willingness to back candidates who help the conservative coalition suggests that libertarian and social-conservative Tea Party activists may be able to rally behind more moderate Republicans from liberal-minded districts.