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.
Getting a mole’s-eye view as a reporter isn’t all that different from what researchers like Blum do. She told me about a meeting of a Northern Virginia tea party group in early 2013, which opened her eyes to the process by which movement conservatives in the area were strategizing a takeover of the party structure.
“The whole purpose of the meeting was to train tea party members,” she says, and the idea of the convention—rather than a primary—“was compelling to tea party members because what they could do was use their kind of vast local networks of e-mail alerts and local tea party groups to basically capture a third of the delegate spots.”
Blum said she didn’t see reporters at most of the other events she attended, and often organizers would treat her like press. A mole’s eye-view of what’s going on in the grassroots could inform coverage that tends to focus on endorsements and fundraising, she said.
That squares with what Tom White, a conservative activist in the area who penned a blog post predicting a Cantor loss the night before the election, told me. In Virginia’s 7th District, tea party types regularly attend Republican meetings and belong to Republican committees, White says, and “as of right now they’re slowing moving into power”—the party is going through a “metamorphosis.”
When someone in politics tells you how successful they are, you should check it out, of course. But White—who describes himself as “a recovering Republican who has finally had enough of the war on conservatives”—is serious about his goals. At one point in our conversation he rattled off the state’s central Republican Committee seat share off the top of his head (“I think there was 83 total, and 53 were on the conservative side of the fence”) and he’s not eager to rest on his laurels. A former Cantor supporter who switched to Brat, he sees the election result as just the latest rung in the conservative movement’s climb to power. Movement conservatives earlier in the year had been able to stop Cantor’s allies from controlling a county delegation at a Republican convention, and also ousted Cantor’s pick for chairman. More change might happen in the wake of the election. White himself has called for the resignation of the GOP committee chairwoman in Hanover County.
A single county chair might be small political beer, but these are the sort of fights that add up—and even when “establishment” politicians at higher levels hold their seats, winning these fights is part of how local activists exert pressure on the party. Days after I spoke with White, he was still waiting to see a report in the media about it. “They’re not covering this. They’re not covering the movement of the movement, if you want to call it something,” he says.
But White doesn’t call himself a tea partier, even though he goes to tea party meetings. He prefers the term “conservative Republican.” Which is the sort of thing that can make identifying key activists and their roles somewhat tricky.
That’s especially the case when many tea party organizations are fragile, volunteer-driven, and generally have only a small number of activists, according to Tufts University political scientist Jeffrey Berry, who has studied the movement’s organizational structure and wrote a 2012 paper on tea party mobilization.
Speaking over the phone while on vacation in Scotland, Berry said one reason reporters might miss what’s going on among tea party activists is because there isn’t much public-facing activity to observe. Sometimes there’ll be a helpful marker—as Blum noted, a robust website with news of upcoming meetings obviously indicates a strong organization more than a blogspot that was abandoned in 2011.
But with few meetings, few public demonstrations at this point, and typically only a few spokespeople in a particular area, the movement just doesn’t have the normal facade of a political organization, Berry said. Coordination can be more likely to take place through e-mail than in public forums.
Something else Berry has found—and this bolsters one of the retrospective narratives about the Cantor-Brat race—is that talking points and flashpoints of outrage among the movement’s ranks emerge on talk radio.
“People who listen to talk radio listen to talk radio,” he says. “It’s not like music that’s on in the background. When you’re listening to talk radio you’re having a conversation in your mind with the host or the guest. You’re thinking about, ‘What would I say in this instance?’ So it has that quality to it. It’s very effective—if everybody’s on the same page.”
But if there’s a connection between local activists and national media, there’s usually no such relationship between a county organization and a national effort like, say, Tea Party Express. “There’s almost two tea parties, the elite astroturf and the grassroots,” said Blum.
Following the money wielded by those “elite astroturf” groups is another important reporting task, of course. But consider this a reminder that, even as the ideological fault lines in American politics become more nationalized, plenty of the important conflicts—especially within parties—are fought in particular state and local communities. Focus too much on the big stuff, and you might miss what’s important.