One of the constant refrains of the so-called mainstream media is that tea party candidates are blithering incompetents and weird wackos. They may do well this year, the refrain goes, but when voters come to their senses, the Republican Party will pay a big price for embracing them.
This meme is part of a pattern. As longtime Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, now writing for The Daily Beast, puts it, “News organizations were late to the tea party phenomenon and are still grappling to explain it.”
As on so many points, I think the mainstream media have gotten it nearly upside-down. What strikes me about so-called tea party candidates — those with little or no political experience who have won Republican nominations by opposing the Obama Democrats’ vast expansion of government — is not that some of them are bumblers but that so many of them seem to have terrific political instincts.
Consider the performance of Nevada Republican Sharron Angle in her single public debate with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Longtime Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston, no admirer of Angle, said that Angle clearly won. Reid, wrote Ralston, “looked as if he could barely stay on a linear argument, abruptly switching gears and failing to effectively parry or thrust.”
If Angle could do better than Reid, first elected to statewide office 40 years ago and a veteran of 28 years in Congress, the Senate Democratic leader for six years, maybe she isn’t such a dog after all.
Similarly, Delaware Republican Christine O’Donnell held her own against Democrat Chris Coons in their debate. O’Donnell has some significant political baggage and is trailing in what has been a heavily Democratic state since the mid-1990s. But she didn’t embarrass her party in debate.
Mainstream media have paid less attention to Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, a plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh, who has surged to a nearly double-digit lead over three-term incumbent Russ Feingold in a state that voted 56 percent to 42 percent for Barack Obama.
Johnson has no political experience, but he seems to me to have perfect political pitch, articulating anti-government-spending themes with precision and generally avoiding statements that would put him on the defensive.
That wasn’t initially true of Rand Paul, the libertarian-minded Senate nominee in Kentucky, who after winning the May primary dismayed Republican insiders by questioning the public accommodations provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
He has avoided such gaffes for months and is now capitalizing on his Democrat opponent Jack Conway’s ad questioning his religious beliefs. Conway has much more political experience but looks more amateurish at this point.
It’s hard to keep up with all the seriously contested House races around the country — more seem to show up on the radar screen every week. But it’s interesting to me that some of the candidates who have risen from entirely apolitical backgrounds to challenge Democrats everyone considered safe even a few months ago seem to have good political instincts.
Take Ilario Pantano in North Carolina 7, a district Democrats have held since Reconstruction. Pantano is the son of Italian immigrants, who left Goldman Sachs to re-enlist in the Marines after 9/11 and was entirely vindicated of charges brought against him by a disgruntled subordinate.
Pantano has taken on 14-year incumbent Mike McIntyre, a pleasant man with deep local roots, and has wisely not attacked him personally. Instead, he’s targeted the policies of the Obama Democrats.
Or consider Chip Cravaack, former Navy and Northwest Airlines pilot who says he’s spent several years as a stay-at-home dad. He’s taken on 36-year veteran Jim Oberstar, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, in Minnesota 8, a district Democrats have held since 1946. Cravaack has shrewdly targeted some local issues and may capitalize on the fact that Oberstar received only one contribution from a district resident in the last quarter.
Polling indicates that these two Republicans, tea party types if not tea party products, are making serious challenges in districts where Democrats received 69 percent and 68 percent of the vote in 2008. Not all such challenges are successful. But some are, and they can change the political balance in Congress.
The tea party movement today, like the peace movement 40 years ago, has brought many new people into politics — and many with sharper political instincts than their detractors in the press have been able to understand.