Diluted Tea

Sharron Angle, the failed Republican/Tea Party Senate candidate in Nevada, has just announced that she’s forming a PAC to advance Tea Party ideals and Tea Party candidates.  Angle, whose candidacy was buoyed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express, lost the Senate race to Harry Reid, a seat widely viewed as winnable for Republicans.

The Tea Party Express made Angle’s candidacy possible, and also invigorated other problematic Senate campaigns, including those of Christine O’Donnell (Delaware), Joe Miller (Alaska), and Ken Buck (Colorado).  In fact, the Tea Party Express may well have cost the  Republicans control of the Senate.

Conservative political consultant Sal Russo renamed his PAC  (originally, “Our Country Deserves Better”) “Tea Party Express” when conservative activism under the Tea Party label promised better fundraising.  It worked.  If his Tea Party group sometimes made different choices about candidates and issues than other Tea Party groups, well, that’s just movement politics.

Of course, Sharron Angle has as much right to claim the Tea Party brand as anyone else, including Christine O’Donnell, who is also starting a PAC.  It’s not only a vehicle for employment and raising money, but also a way to cultivate political ties that could help in future campaigns.  Joe Miller is going to need something to do when the Alaska Senate race is finally declared as well.

More PACs under the Tea Party brand creates competition for defining the movement and its efforts.  If the new PACs track their sponsor, they need to find new sources of funding, or else undermine the  older Tea Party groups.  And each will offer its own definition of what it means to be a Tea Partier.  They’ll distinguish themselves on the basis of prioritizing particular issues: taxes or immigration or abortion or the deficit.  Every priority carries strong supporters and opponents.  In effect, there is a looming battle over defining just what the Tea Party is.

The battle for definition is recurrent in movement politics, and the populist elements in the Tea Party make it particularly likely to be messy and contested.

And opponents will point to the craziest people and ideas to define the Tea Party.  The latest news suggests there will be plenty of  them.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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