The media narrative of the Establishment versus Tea Party in Republican primaries misses what is really happening. The Tea Party movement has morphed from staging rallies to direct action and is learning in every campaign cycle. Take Wisconsin for example. In Wisconsin, the Tea Party knocked off 35-year Congressional incumbent Tom Petri by forcing a primary. Rep. Tom Petri decided not to run for re-election rather than face a serious Tea Party backed primary challenger this fall. Make no mistake, the Tea Party is winning in Wisconsin, but the media won’t tell you that.
The Tea Party in Wisconsin has been battle-tested and forced into organizing through Wisconsin’s protests and recalls. Because of its efforts, many credit the Tea Party for significantly helping Gov. Scott Walker to become the first governor in US history to defeat a recall and in the meantime increasing his win margin from his initial 2010 election. The Left unknowingly provided the Wisconsin Tea Party groups with opportunities to mature and become a more powerful political force.
Congressman Tom Petri had gone largely unchallenged in Wisconsin’s 6th Congressional District until recently. He won a special election in 1979 and had a largely moderate voting record. He voted for single payer healthcare, Cash for Clunkers, Head Start expansion, Obama’s Stimulus for an Education Jobs Fund, and in favor of Obama’s War on Coal, to name a few of his moderate votes.
In 2012, however, Petri received a primary challenge from Lauren Stephens, a tea party connected candidate. Without any name recognition or much funding, she still garnered 18% of the primary vote. Some of the tea party leaders in the district got involved in this race, but many thought she had little chance of winning.
Tea party leaders quickly learned that running an underfunded candidate against an incumbent is a fool’s errand. So they began looking for a conservative candidate to run against Petri in 2014 who would have some name recognition or who could self-fund to create that name recognition. Conventional wisdom was still that Petri was unbeatable, but the tea party leaders were putting together a recipe for success, hoping that their chosen candidate would get support from conservative Talk Radio and national conservative groups.
This time around, several notable conservatives were actively considering a primary challenge, including John Hiller (Businessman and Scott Walker ally), Joe Dean (Former Head of Stars and Stripes Honor Flight), and State Rep. Duey Stroebel (Businessman). Eventually, Sen. Glenn Grothman, a well-known conservative, announced his candidacy in early April.
Throughout early 2014, all of this activity brought more scrutiny to Tom Petri than he had ever experienced. The Tea Party’s activities attracted media attention both from Gannett and new media like Right Wisconsin and Wisconsin Reporter. Media Trackers, a new conservative media investigative watchdog, provided the most coverage of Tom Petri’s underwhelming and at times anti-Walker positions. I wrote about this increased level of scrutiny on April 10, just days before Petri announced he wasn’t running for re-election.
Petri undoubtedly noticed this new political landscape: the Tea Party organizing to defeat him and new media and Talk Radio giving him unprecedented scrutiny. Ultimately, he decided it was better to walk away then go down in disgrace through losing a primary challenge.
Unfortunately, the mainstream media is missing stories like these showing the Tea Party is being successful and playing politics at a different level.
The Tea Party is having success as they ditch the rallies and engage in direct political action. The lesson of Tom Petri is that the Tea Party is a powerful force of change as it works behind the scenes and through the political system to effect real change. Their success in the Walker Recall and primarying of Tom Petri demonstrates that the Tea Party is finding a new, influential role in 2014. A more sophisticated Tea Party is backing bold conservative candidates who can win in general elections