At just past eleven o’clock last Tuesday night, Russell Cote was standing in the gilt-speckled lobby of Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel, a whiskey on the rocks in one hand and a homemade-style scott brown for senate sign in the other. Brown, the newly elected U.S. senator for Massachusetts, had just given a rambling but measured victory speech in the upstairs ballroom. Now Cote, a 32-year-old tea-party activist who’d driven from his home in New Jersey to volunteer in Brown’s campaign, was engaged in a more succinct celebration—cocking back his head and sending a boozy howl in the direction of a giant crystal chandelier.
When Cote was done braying, I asked him what it was about Brown that had compelled him to come from Jersey—and his fellow tea-partyers to journey from as far as Hawaii. “Forty-one!” he yelled, “forty-one!”—as in the 41st GOP vote in the Senate that Brown now represents, giving Republicans the ability to filibuster Obama’s health-care legislation, or anything else they desire. But what about Brown himself? Cote was quieter now. “To be honest,” he confessed, “I only know a little about him.”
For all the shock value of a Republican’s taking Ted Kennedy’s seat (much less one who once posed nude for Cosmo), the most startling aspect of Brown’s upset is what it revealed about the tea-party movement. Once considered long on dogmatic passion but short on strategy, the tea-partyers displayed nimbleness and, for the first time, pragmatism.
After all, there’s nothing ideologically pure about Brown himself. Boris Shor, a University of Chicago public-policy professor who examined Brown’s State Senate voting record, concluded that he belonged to “the liberal wing” of the already-liberal Massachusetts GOP. Indeed, according to Shor’s analysis, Brown’s votes put him to the left of Dede Scozzafava, the New York assemblywoman who was the Republican candidate for an upstate congressional seat last year. Deeming Scozzafava’s record insufficiently conservative, the tea-partyers helped drive her out of the race and, in the process, wound up handing the seat to her erstwhile Democratic opponent (whom she ultimately endorsed) when the third-party candidate they backed proved too right-wing to win.
But the tea-party movement learned its lesson. So, while tea parties are backing ultraconservative candidates in Florida, Texas, and California, they recognize that strident conservatism doesn’t cut it in the blue states. As long as Brown was willing to vote against Obamacare, talk tough on terrorism, and fetishize his pickup truck, activists like the American Liberty Alliance and RedState.com weren’t going to spend a lot of time worrying about his being pro-choice or not getting too exercised over gay marriage.
Brown’s election has all sorts of scary ramifications for Democrats, but the scariest may be that it will spur tea-partyers to head to places once considered inhospitable to their brand of lunacy. Everyone expected the Beck Brigades to go after Harry Reid in Nevada and Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas in 2010, but what if they flock to Connecticut, where Linda McMahon—a socially moderate, avowedly populist former pro-wrestling executive—is a Republican Senate candidate? Or even to New York, where Rick Lazio would welcome their help against Andrew Cuomo?
Last Tuesday, as the tea-partyers spilled out of Brown’s victory party and into the cold Boston night, it wasn’t hard to envision them fanning out across the country. Yes, they still looked ridiculous—dressed in their Uncle Sam top hats and tipsy from the cash bar—but, suddenly, there appeared to be a method to their madness.
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