A lot of attention has been directed at the special election to fill Ted Kennedy's seat representing Massachusetts in the Senate, but one aspect of the race which has been simmering beneath the surface is the split which it has generated within the coalition that makes up the Tea Party movement. Although the main contenders in the race are Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Martha Coakley, there is also a credible and widely popular libertarian running as an independent challenger.
Joe Kennedy bills himself as "The Tea Party Candidate" and has attracted a lot of attention because of his name and the possibility that it may draw substantial votes from Coakley, even though he is not related to the Kennedy family in any way. He is currently polling at between 5% and 10% of the vote, with some indication that he is drawing votes mostly from Coakley, bringing her numbers down enough so that Brown is within a couple of percentage points of winning and becoming the first Republican to hold that seat since John F. Kennedy defeated Henry Cabot Lodge in 1953.
It's an interesting scenario, but one which we've seen in other races where a libertarian or an independent does well enough to change the possible outcome of an important election. But from the perspective of those in the Tea Party movement it has become much more controversial, almost a struggle for the identity of the movement.
Kennedy calls himself "The Tea Party Candidate" because he is endorsed by the Boston Tea Party, one of the original Tea Party activist groups associated with the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign. He is also endorsed by the state Libertarian Party and even has some support among liberty Republicans, both groups who were central to the original grassroots Tea Parties.
However, other elements of the Tea Party movement have chosen to support Republican candidate Scott Brown, even though his record on issues they are concerned about is weak. The Tea Party Express has officially endorsed Brown. It is a group founded by Howard Kaloogian which has attracted a lot of mainstream Republicans and is viewed as suspect by many grassroots activists. The Tea Party Patriots, who are backed by FreedomWorks and are frequently accused of being shills for big business interests have also shown strong support for Brown, as has Tea Party Nation which is a coalition of far right social conservatives, nativists and extremist groups associated with the Tea Parties. Even many members of Ron Paul's nonpartisan Campaign for Liberty are pushing Brown.
None of these groups who are supporting Brown are terribly enthusiastic about his record or his positions on issues. Many of them would support Kennedy in a second if he was running as a Republican challenger to Brown and had a chance of getting elected. Some of the more socially conservative groups have no candidate they like in the race at all. Yet all of these Tea Party associated groups have abandoned the candidate with genuine Tea Party credentials to support Brown because it is a better political strategy. They may not like Brown much, but if he can win a Senate seat from Massachusetts that's such a huge blow to the Democrats and would do so much to weaken the efforts to pass Obamacare that they are biting the bullet and promote a candidate who they wouldn't give a second look in another circumstance.
In return, Brown has really embraced the Tea Party label and has borrowed their message and many of their ideas in pushing his candidacy. This raises the hope for those who are reluctantly supporting him that some of that rhetoric will stick with him once he gets in office and he will be a better representative for the people than he would have been without their support, either by being educated from his association with the Tea Party movement or out of a sense that he owes something to them for putting him in office.
All of this seems pretty unfair for Joe Kennedy who really is a good candidate with solid credentials and interesting ideas and a more authentic Tea Party platform. Some of his supporters are taking it personally. There is already a lot of resentment among more libertarian Tea Party activists against some of the more mainstream and often better-funded groups which have become involved. They are seen as corporate shills or interlopers from the Republican party or opportunists trying to cash in on Tea Party momentum. There is fear that they will take over the movement and resentment that they give the left-leaning media a basis to criticize the movement as a whole as illegitimate.
The groups which have stuck with Kennedy are the ones which are most ideologically driven and which put ideals and principles ahead of political pragmatism. But this sort of misses the whole point of the Tea Party movement, which is to actually influence government and implement changes in policy. You can't change anything with candidates who can't get elected, no matter how great they are. It's the old, old argument of whether or not to take the lesser of two evils, and one element of the Tea Party movement has decided that evil is still evil and utterly unacceptable while the rest have taken the position that less evil is better than more evil.
It is certainly true that Martha Coakley is "more evil." Not only is she guaranteed to vote with the Democrat establishment on health care, bailouts and other issues, but seeing that Brown has welcomed the Tea Party groups into his campaign network, she has been hammering him on that association relentlessly, a tactic which may actually have backfired, driving more grassroots support and money to Brown.
Borrowing a leaf from the Tea Party's book, Brown launched a fundraising "money bomb" on Monday with the goal of raising $750,000. At the end of the day he surprised everyone by having raised $1.3 million, giving his warchest a huge boost at a time when the election is only a week away and Coakley's larger initial funds have almost run out.
Brown is now only two points behind in the latest poll, which has put even more pressure on the Tea Party groups, because if Kennedy could be persuaded to withdraw that would very likely give Brown the votes he needs to win. All over the blogosphere Tea Party activists are haranguing each other over this issue, arguing principles vs. pragmatism and getting very hot under the collar. Ultimately it comes down to Joe Kennedy, and it seems unlikely that having taken his campaign this far he would withdraw and throw his support to Brown at this late date.
It is an irony of our political system that everyone concerned about this situation at the grassroots level knows that Kennedy is the better candidate and one who represents their interests much more completely. At the end of the day, however, that's not enough when the issues at play are so important and the stakes are so high. Some in the Tea Party movement will never accept this, but it's a reality they are going to have to face again and again in the upcoming nationwide election cycle, and that clash between ideals and reality may very well tear the Tea Party movement apart.Dave Nalle has worked as a magazine editor, a freelance writer, a capitol hill staffer, a game designer and taught college history for many years. He now designs fonts for a living and lives with his family in a small town just outside Austin where he is ex-president of the local Lions Club. He is on the board of the Republican Liberty Caucus and Politics Editor of Blogcritics Magazine. You can find his writings about fonts, art and graphic design at The Scriptorium. He also runs a conspiracy debunking site at IdiotWars.com.