Tea Party business

Maybe the more important story of the conservative, mostly unsuccessful, primary challenges to incumbents isn’t the few victories nor the political shifts rightward from scared legislators.   Maybe the big story is the money, millions dumped into primary campaigns by challengers and defenders.

Politico features two reports on campaign spending.  So-called Tea Party groups, principally the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks, and Tea Party Patriots have spent at least $12.5 million to fund conservative challengers.  And there’s more: other organizations and subsequent reports will add substantially to that total.

Establishment-oriented groups, have spent nearly twice that much in independent expenditures, with the US Chamber of Commerce as the largest contributor.  And incumbents have been aggressive in raising money to defend their offices.

What all this means still isn’t clear.  Minimally, conservative donors have dipped deeper into their substantial pockets to fund candidates, and that money has gone to employ consultants, pollsters, and political operatives–essentially, a full employment act for Republican campaign professionals.  I’m sure they want to win, but fighting the good fight–on the clock–isn’t a bad fallback.  The drive to raise money makes for more polemical rhetoric, for the moment directed against fellow Republicans, which certainly doesn’t make for informative–or pleasant–politics.

The fact that the insurgents are mounting these challenges makes it all the more urgent–and expensive–for the incumbents to fight for their base.  And individual candidates are raising more money on their own than ever before.

The focus on funding primary fights means that the most important Tea Party activists are those who can write large checks.  To the extent that a grassroots remains of the movement, it’s become increasingly marginal.  This is an institutionalization story, in which the issues become a vehicle for animating the business of politics.

What will all of it mean?

Here’s a few things I don’t know:

Are conservative funders going to get tired of spending money on largely internecine battles?

Will there be less money for the fall campaigns against Democrats?

Can the supply side of Republican campaign professionals (insurgent and establishment) continue to nurture its own demand?  (If supply side economics works anywhere, it should be here!)

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Thirty-five feet

I used to go to a wonderful dentist whose office, on Beacon Street in Brookline, was next door to the Planned Parenthood clinic at the center of today’s Supreme Court decision.  Once, accompanied by my wife (I’m very squeamish about dental work), I was confronted by anti-abortion protesters.  They were determined to dissuade my wife from having an abortion, and didn’t believe that she wasn’t planning to, wasn’t pregnant, and was just accompanying me to the dentist.  The encounter was unpleasant and stressful in a high stress situation for me–going to get dental x-rays–but really a blip.  The dentist explained that the protesters were somewhat more disruptive to her practice, and once tried to blockade the transport of a new dental drill, which they thought was destined for the Planned Parenthood clinic.  (They said, she reported, that it was a baby-sucking machine.)

Not long afterward, a troubled anti-abortion zealot, John Salvi, entered that clinic–and another one down the road–shooting seven clinic workers, killing two.  Salvi was never among the sidewalk counselors, who try to persuade women not to get abortions; he believed the situation demanded more forceful action.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has worked to craft laws that balance the right to free speech with the protection of women’s health clinics and their clientele.  The 2007 version of this balance was a law establishing a 35 foot buffer zone in front of the clinic entrance that restricted entry by protesters–on any issue on any side.  [The figure at the top of this page compares the 35 foot buffer zone to the buffer zone that protects the Supreme Court from free speech efforts.  It's from NARAL-Pro-choice Massachusetts's Facebook page.]

Free speech rights in America have never been absolute, but are subject to reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner.  Just what’s “reasonable,” however, is always a matter of contest.  Justice Holmes’s  offered the famous analogy of preventing someone from crying fire in a crowded movie house to justify prosecuting protesters against World War I and the draft.

Thirty-five feet?

Eleanor McCullen (at right) is a regular Operation Rescue protester who is committed to helping women decide not  to have abortions.  She offers literature and information to those who might enter the clinic, and wants to engage people in a conversational tone, looking them in the eyes.  The 35 foot boundary, she says, stops her from exercising her free speech rights.

In McCullen v. Coakley, all nine justices agreed with Ms. McMullen.  Public streets and thoroughfares, the Court explained, offer a special fora for free speech, and the anti-abortion protesters reported that the 35 foot buffer limited the number of conversations they would have and reduced the amount of literature they could distribute.  To engage women entering the clinic they had to yell.  Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, ruled that Massachusetts could find narrower and less intrusive ways to serve its legitimate interests in public safety.

I don’t know whether 35 feet is too restrictive, or where the right to be left alone fits in here.  Presumably, protesters are entitled to try to dissuade you, peacefully, from doing any number of things: riding the bus, crossing a picket line, eating fast food, grabbing a good parking space, getting a vaccine, or going to a movie.  Those are all individual decisions, however, and I’d think we would want to offer protesters better access to convince people in a position to make decisions on matters of policy that affect larger numbers of people.

If 35 feet is too big a buffer for approaching a women’s health clinic, we’d think that access to the Supreme Court, the state legislature, a presidential speech, the meetings of the International Monetary Fund, or the home of a large company’s CEO, would be somewhat more limited as well.  Public figures and policy makers should be more accessible to dissenters than private citizens making difficult decisions.  This decision should be an important precedent for protesters frustrated with “free speech zones” located miles from their targets.

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Mississippi turning

Drawing the line back from Senator Thad Cochran’s narrow victory in the Republican primary run-off to the contentious politics of the Mississippi Project fifty years earlier is a little easier than you’d think, although it’s doubtful that many of those brave activists would have viewed keeping an ultra-conservative, if courtly, old white Republican in national office as a goal.  But movements work in odd and unexpected ways.  And things could always be worse.

Sen. Cochran was the most vulnerable of the Republican incumbents targeted by the more vigorous conservative wing of their party (now routinely referred to as “Tea Party”).  Truckloads of money from national groups, including FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, Citizens United (of Supreme Court case fame), and the Senate Conservatives Fund, poured in to support the candidacy of Chris McDaniel, a lawyer who had served two terms in the state senate after a sojourn in conservative talk radio.

McDaniel launched a well-funded insurgent challenge against Cochran based on the Senator’s long service.  Cochran, he charged, had been more successful in his 36 years in bringing federal money into the state than in cutting federal spending and taxes.  Primaries are low turnout elections, where the truly committed, if organized and mobilized, can beat a larger, less concerned, constituency.  And the Tea Party represents, AT MOST, a small but very concerned wedge of the population.  (A recent New York Times poll reports 21 percent of Americans claiming support for the Tea Party.)

The key for Sen. Cochran was finding new voters, beyond those regular Republicans who brought him a little less than half of the primary vote.  What happened in Mississippi is what never happens between a primary and a run-off election: voter turnout increased by nearly 60,000 votes (an increase of 17 percent) (Thank you, 538.com).  Both sides worked hard, and spent aggressively to boost turnout, but the increases were largest in Delta counties with large African American populations.

And here’s where we have to think about Freedom Summer fifty years ago, when organizers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee brought 1,000 mostly white college students to the state to try to register black voters.  (Helpfully, PBS is broadcasting a fine documentary on the subject.)


The immediate outcomes of the effort were violent repression and conflict which spurred national publicity.  Would-be voters were humiliated, threatened, and harassed, and three summer organizers were killed. President Lyndon Johnson, running for reelection, worked hard to minimize the visibility of the movement and its impact on the Democratic Party.  The following summer, however, President Johnson would quote a movement song in a national speech pressing (successfully) for the Voting Rights Act.   Blacks registered to vote in Mississippi, and the documentary reports that the state now has more Black elected officials than any other state.

These successes, however, came at the expense of the Democratic Party more generally.  Conservative Whites deserted the Democrats over time, and eventually gave the national Republican Party the electoral lock on the South that Democrats had previously enjoyed (exploited? serviced?).  Aided by decennial aggressive redistricting, the Democratic Party in Mississippi is overwhelming Black, and locked into the political minority.  Republicans hold ALL state-wide elected offices, and political prognosticators universally saw the Republican primary as tantamount to election for Senator Cochran’s seat.

Seeking support beyond typical Republican primary voters, Sen. Cochran worked to mobilize Black voters, mostly Democrats who realized that a Democrat would not win the general election in November.  The McDaniel challenge made those voters valuable to Cochran in a way they had never before been.

The mobilization strategy was clear since the primary election weeks ago, and Tea Party groups worked to monitor the polls, taking notes, and perhaps dissuading some would-be voters.  It used to be that such efforts were directed at keeping Blacks from the polls.  Yesterday, it was about keeping voters who might support a Democrat in November from showing up at the polls.  But you could identify those people by their color.

McDaniel has refused to concede to Cochran, suggesting that he will challenge the vote in court, noting the participation of Democrats in the primary.  The conflict about access to the polls in elections that actually matter continues, fifty years after the Summer Project.

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Is the Tea Party at the polls?

A professor beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s 7th district’s Republican primary; pundits are competing to find the right metaphor (earthquake?).  The common capsule description is that Dave Bratt, a professor of Economics at Randolph-Macon College, represented the Tea Party, rising up–effectively this time–against the Republican establishment.  (Professor Bratt’s websites are likely getting more traffic today than they were designed to handle.)

Rep. Cantor, although boasting an extremely conservative record–to the right of Speaker Boehner–had been attacked from the right at least since 2010, and was particularly vulnerable on the issue of immigration (activists feared he might support some kind of reform).  Prof. Bratt rode that issue, garnering some support from local Tea Party groups and the endorsements of popular conservative radio personalities.  Although he raised and spent very little money, he defeated Rep. Cantor and looks to be on a glide path to the House of Representatives.  He has only to defeat Democratic candidate, Jack Trammell, a sociology professor from the same college–in a district that had become more conservative and more Republican over the years.  (Bratt’s advantage is less about academic disciplines than partisan loyalties.)

So, is this story of a successful Tea Party insurgency in the context of (mostly) lots of primary defeats as mainstream Republicans guarded their right flank by spending lots of money from local Chambers of Commerce?  That’s certainly one story, and it rides against a broader debate about the success of the Republican establishment in controlling the Tea Party.  The basic fault lines:

By paying attention and spending lots of money, “main street Republicans” have marginalized the Tea Party


The Republican regulars have moved so far to the right that the Tea Party wins even when it loses.

There’s plenty of evidence and argument on both sides (e.g.).

But it’s a mistake to draw big conclusions from very small elections.  Turnout in primary elections is almost always very low.  (That’s why, by the way, primaries are a good place for social movements to try to exercise influence.)  Turnout in Virginia’s 7th district this week was about 5 percent–even lower than two years priorProf. Bratt’s percentage win was impressive, but it was only about 7,000 votes.  And the turnout in primary elections skews toward the more engaged; for the Republican primary in the 7th district, this meant an electorate that was older, whiter, and more conservative than you could imagine (from Will Saletan at Slate).  Representative Cantor did a great job at raising and spending money, but apparently didn’t put much effort in turning out his voters.

And what kind of Tea Partier is Dave Bratt anyway?  For sure, he’s an economic conservative who opposes taxes, government spending, and regulations (check).  He’s also against new immigration of any kind and a committed religious conservative.  The Tea Party started, with support from large national organizations, on the first point, but at the grassroots, conservative activists carried flags for additional issues.  Now the appellation Tea Party is applied to any Republican who is particularly emphatic in his conservatism–of all kinds.  Immigration, social issues, and foreign policy offer all sorts of divisions for this movement–if there’s really a movement any more.

Oh, and here’s another note:  Eric Cantor is presently the only Jewish Republican in Congress.  This was apparently not an issue in the primary election, although Dave Bratt and his supporters emphasized the challenger’s very strong Christian commitments.  In one small election, this is another bit of story.

The point is that there are all kinds of story lines that you can pass through the thin point of a Republican primary in Richmond, Virginia: populist uprising; establishment neglect; restless Tea Party; overpriced and ill-conceived electoral strategies; mobilized nativism.  And so on.  What matters now is which story prevails.


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Occupy Recapture on wheels

Phil Lyman, elected a county commissioner for San Juan County in Utah, thinks that people should be able to use public land near them as they see fit.  The Federal Bureau of Land Management disagrees, at least partly. Since 2007 about 14 miles of trails have been closed to motorized vehicles in Recapture Canyon to protect Pueblo Indian artifacts amid Anasazi ruins.  The Bureau of Land Management, which regulates the area–and much land in the west–emphasizes that 2,800 miles of trails on nearby public lands were open for use.

For Commissioner Lyman and his allies, this isn’t enough.  To demonstrate their beliefs, about 300 people rallied before a few dozen rode All Terrain Vehicles into a restricted area, while law enforcement officials looked on.  At least some of the protesters were armed.  Commissioner Lyman emphasized the protest was against federal disregard for the interests and opinions of local residents, “Just because BLM owns the property, that doesn’t mean they own the right-of-way that exists.”

The BLM has promised prosecution of people who violate the law, and Commissioner Lyman said that everyone present realized they risked arrest.

Although some protesters were armed, the protest itself was peaceful, and local law enforcement emphasized, orderly and contained.  Other reports emphasized that some of Cliven Bundy’s children were present; they have their own dispute about the use of federal lands.  And it’s hardly surprising that Native American nations and environmentalists were outraged.

Public spaces across the country are regulated by the government which, ostensibly, represents the public interest.  There are rules about access and conduct, and sometimes use fees.  The government is supposed to balance competing interests, including safety, preservation, and revenue.  People who don’t get what they want are, understandably, resentful about what public means in practice.  (Confession: I resent that California charges $15 to park at my favorite surfing beach, which abuts a now-closed nuclear power plant–also on public land.)

Getting what you want from public resources is a function of political action, and elected officials ostensibly have more direct ways to influence political decisions that illegal protest.  But government is big and complicated, with all kinds of different interests and access points.  Change is extremely difficult, and organized interests often fail to see your interests as important and unambiguous as you do.

Taking the space through direct action, even risking damage to the area, isn’t a strategy peculiar to Westerners who want to ride their ATVs in protected areas, and Phil Lyman is hardly the first elected official to engage in civil disobedience.

Even acknowledging very different purposes and constituencies, the ATV riders remind me of the Occupy campaign.  Many more people, of course, seized on the urban spaces to make political claims; they were at it for much longer, and they weren’t armed, but they thought their use of the spaces trumped other interests and concerns.  Most significantly, however, they drew massive attention to their actions and issues.

It’s now up to the BLM to decide how to react to the protesters, and up to the voters of San Juan County to decide how to respond to Phil Lyman, who is running unopposed for re-election as a commissioner.

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Stanford, Steyer, and institutional allies

Here’s a little wrinkle on yesterday’s news about Stanford’s coal divestment:

Billionaire Tom Steyer sits on Stanford’s board of trustees; actually, he’s vice-chair.  Steyer, formerly an extremely successful hedge fund manager, has been raising money for liberal and Democratic candidates for office for thirty years, and has recently announced a commitment to spend at least $100 million to make climate change an issue in this year’s elections.

Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor

He and his wife, Kathryn Ann Taylor, donated $40 million to establish the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy and the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford in 2008.  Steyer is a committed opponent of the Keystone Pipeline.  He is the founder and chief funder of NextGen Climate, an advocacy organization that aims to put climate change at the center of political debate in America.

Meantime, Steyer and NextGen have lately gone directly after the Koch Brothers, the most visible billionaires funding climate skepticism.  The brothers turned down Steyer’s invitation to debate climate change in general and Keystone in particular, noting that they are not really experts on the science and would prefer not to speak on the issue.  OK, in America money talks too.

But back to divestment:

All considered:  I wasn’t at the meeting where Stanford trustees decided how to respond to Fossil Free, but:

Stanford trustees could see an even bigger upside financially to taking a stance against coal.  Stanford trustees were likely to be exposed to powerful arguments about fossil fuels and climate change, made more powerful by the sponsorship of a generous and active supporter of the university.

It helps to have allies in powerful positions.

And institutional power matters.

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Stanford and the Fossil Free campaign

Stanford University announced that it would work to divest holdings in coal companies from its investment portfolio.  It’s a relatively small blow to the coal industry, which is bracing for some bigger hits soon.  It’s also a big victory for the divestment campaign of the climate change movement in general, and 350.org, the awareness/action group founded by Bill McKibben.

Fossil Free coordinates numerous divestment campaigns across the United States, announcing that students are leading the way for the broader movement:

Students have always been key to movements of conscience, and this fight is no different.

Institutions of higher education are charged with preparing their students for lifetimes of work and service. But if those institutions are invested in fossil fuel companies, then students’ educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degrees.

Colleges and universities rush to launch greening initiatives, sustainability offices, and environmental curricula, but it makes no sense to green the campus and not the portfolio. Fossil fuel divestment is a reasonable next step — and it’s the right thing to do.

The campaign offers an extremely smart strategy for the movement.  It’s less about putting financial pressure on the oil and gas industry to, uh, find something else to do, than about finding a way to engage young people.  Divestment is something to ask for, organize around, and use as a vehicle for public education.  Particularly for climate change, finding productive action and viable targets, is tricky and extremely important.  It also echoes campus-based efforts that were part of the successful anti-apartheid movement.  Campaigns, even unsuccessful ones, train and politicize activists and generate attention.  And sometimes generate victories, even partial ones.

Stanford is a big hit.  Even though its decision addresses only coal, it’s an extremely prestigious and visible institution–maybe the hardest to gain admittance to in the United States–and it’s a huge endowment.  Early adopters are likely to be moving much smaller chunks of money around and getting less attention.  (The first college to divest its fossil fule investments was Hampshire College, my alma mater, in Western Massachusetts in 2011, which adopted a much stricter investment screen than Stanford plans.  Hampshire was also the first to divest its holdings in companies that did business in South Africa–in 1977, years before any other institutions followed.  See the list of schools and communities committing to some kind of divestment here.)  Many schools and communities have thus far refused the appeals of their students.

Those who reject calls to divest will often note that Boards of Trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to their institutions, and are legally committed to generating the strongest financial returns they can.  This is part of the story about why Stanford is getting out of coal, but not oil or natural gas.    Stanford’s announcement comes just after President Obama emphasized the need for action in the wake of yet another study, this time from the White House, warning about the impact of carbon and climate change.  And just a few weeks before the Environmental Protection Agency will announce new greenhouse gas standards for power plants.  The power industry, and particularly coal manufacturers, expect this to be just awful for them.  (Opponents in Congress are going to be able to complain vigorously, but not much else.)  Divestment looks like good business for the endowment, just as staying in other fossil fuels still looks profitable.

So, what Fossil Free did was help Stanford get good press for something trustees might want to do for completely different reasons.  Successful movements focus on changing conduct as a way to change attitudes; you don’t need to get targets to agree in order to get them to comply.  And, like the predatory lion looking for the zebra with a limp, campaigns do best by knocking off the weaker targets.

Fossil Free activists at Stanford and everywhere are savvy enough, no doubt, to claim the victory, while simultaneously demanding much much more.


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