CHARLESTON, SC – In the days after Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor unexpectedly and soundly lost his primary last week, while journalists and pundits were trying to comprehend how they’d failed to forecast such a stunning defeat, Rachel Blum was going back through some transcripts of a dissertation she’s working on at Georgetown University. Its title: The Tea Party: A Party Within a Party.
News that Cantor, the powerful House Majority Leader and an entrenched Republican with a multi-million dollar war chest, had lost to Randolph-Macon economics professor David Brat, who’d raised around $200,000, shocked much of the political world. But Blum had a different reaction than many on Election Day.
“I was a little bit surprised, but not necessarily that surprised,” she told me over the phone this week. “I know that the southern Virginia tea parties had had it in for Cantor for some time.”
She has been studying the tea party in Virginia for the past couple years, and she recalled an interview with a leader from the Richmond area in 2012. This is what he’d told her, leaning across the table to make his point clear:
When you pinpoint that the Republican Party is just as corrupt as any other political party, it’s blinding… I think politically, if a conservative resurgence is to take hold in this country, it will only come after a very bloody fight with the Republican Party. I advocated that we put independents into this election to knock out these Republican RINOs—if we put Democrats in I’m OK with that—I mean, Eric Cantor and Rob Whitman—they’re Republicans in name only.
To be sure, that’s just one guy in one interview, and a single two-year-old anecdote is no prophecy of Cantor’s impending political doom. But a recent blog post in which Blum recalled that interview made an important point: A driving force behind the election result that stunned the political world, and that accounts for the tea party’s energy and staying power, is local activists.
If the media soul-searching done in the wake of Cantor’s loss is going to be fruitful going forward, both in terms of smarter campaign coverage and in terms of understanding why politicians act the way they do in office, it’s a point we’ll need to take to heart.
Of course, Blum’s not the first or only one to make this argument. In the countless dissections of what happened and how the media failed to see it coming, some of the smarter pieces have noted the importance of local activists—along with conservative media—to Brat’s win, and how a press corps focused on big-money national tea party groups, which sat out the race, might have missed those factors.
But it’s a point worth dwelling on—both to understand what happened in the election, and also to think about the ongoing power struggles within the Republican Party, going forward. Because the truth is, covering politics at the level of local activists—understanding what motivates them, how they coordinate, when they’re about to pull off a stunning success and when they’re about to be steamrolled or co-opted—is necessary, but it can be hard.
Jim McConnell, a reporter at the weekly Chesterfield Observer in the Richmond suburbs, was the closest thing to a journalism hero in David Carr’s critique of the Cantor-Brat coverage for The New York Times. While DC journalists were ensconced in the Beltway, Carr wrote, McConnell was out reporting on the district, and he “kind of saw it coming.”
Whatever he knew about the election, though, McConnell doesn’t claim to have cracked the larger tea party story in his area. “We’ve been trying to figure it out,” he told me. “It’s honestly something we’ve been trying to do locally here in Chesterfield for some time and we still haven’t gotten our hands around it very well at all—about why the tea party seems to have so much success here and why their message seems to reverberate so well with so many of the residents here. And, honestly, we’ve tried and not done a very good job of understanding why that is.”
To cut McConnell some slack against his own self-criticism, knowing that the movement is succeeding is an important first step to understanding why. And as other Virginia reporters noted to me, the movement has drawn significant coverage from the state press, especially during the 2013 nomination fights for governor and lieutenant governor. And as a South Carolina-based journalist who’s recently been writing about the tea party losing steam there, I’m not going to pretend to have deep local knowledge in Virginia.
But for the rest of us, for the rest of this post I’ll review some of the fundamentals—and the challenges—that apply to this sort of reporting in general, and to the tea party in particular.