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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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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4 Responses to Tea Party business

  1. Brent Uzzell says:

    Dr. Meyer
    I remember reading an article that broke down the money highlighting the fact that Tea Party groups raised funds from small donors with gifts of $1000 or less. If this is the case then is it an argument for a continued activist grass-roots? I suspect the real questions might hinge on how long until small donors are emotionally and financially exhausted.

  2. I’m curious about this as well, Brent. The small donors aren’t generally sustainable and supporters who can write large checks get serious deference. It’s about two years ago that FreedomWorks made a deal for its survival that entailed veering away from populist conservatism.
    On the left, Moveon continues to cultivate the $3 donation, but it takes a back seat to large donors who can set an agenda for it.
    What seems important is that there is a professional conservative consultant group that benefits from the ongoing campaigns–regardless of political outcomes.

  3. Far too many of these big groups had their roots in direct mail – later email spam marketing – and evolved into the scare tactic that politician X is doing some horrible thing, click here to send him a fax — which they want $10 or $20 to add your name to the bottom of a single fax. Later the big PACs on both sides started using the same tactics, but since they are supposedly not connected to candidates in any way, they can raise unlimited money. Any limits or public funding to take the corruption of money out of our elections is bashed everywhere as “killing the first amendment:” because everyone benefits from all this money – the PACS, the special interests, and the TV stations, cable, radio, newspapers and paid content websites all get the biggest part of the billion dollars or so raised in total each election cycle. So yes, Virginia, corporations are people, too, and his First Amendment rights are trampled on if he can’t spend $100 million on attack ads.

    • It’s very interesting. Direct mail started on the left, with the McGovern campaign, but was perfected by the right. The superpac was a conservative innovation, but now Democrats are using them more effectively. It is, however, wholesale corruption.

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