Sunday, December 12, 2010





No political development of the last two years was more remarkable than the rise of the Tea Party movement, which began with a few rallies around California in April 2009 and soon mushroomed into a national phenomenon.

But the Tea Party tide didn’t go far in California, as Republicans here failed to pick up even a single congressional seat.

That was partly because of the extreme anti-illegal immigrant tone of many Tea Party rallies, which helped Democrats keep the bulk of Latino votes securely in their camp, and partly because of the candidates the Tea Party ran.

A look at some positions taken by prominent Tea Party-backed candidates is enough to show why this movement – which purports to be purely grass-roots, but is really financed in large part by the far-right billionaire Koch brothers and their oil refineries – may have peaked in the fall election.

There has probably been nothing akin to the Tea Party since the Know-Nothing movement of the mid-19th Century, which was spurred by a widespread belief that a wave of German and Irish Catholic immigration would put America under the control of the Pope and the Vatican. A similar belief that the current tide of Mexican immigration will lead to the end of traditional American values has been a major moving force behind the Tea Party.

But Know-Nothing candidates rarely espoused beliefs as odd as those purveyed by some Tea Party adherents this year.

There was the failed Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller, who believes unemployment benefits are unconstitutional and would like a repeal of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which created direct elections of U.S. senators, rather than letting state legislatures appoint them. There was losing Delaware candidate Christine O’Donnell, who inveighed against masturbation, never a major political issue in the past. There was losing New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, who said it was okay to email bestiality pornography and insisted being homosexual occurs by free choice, despite holdings to the contrary from every significant medical and psychological organization.

There was David Harmer, narrowly defeated congressional candidate in Northern California, who opposes public schools. Merely closing down the federal Department of Education isn’t enough for him. And there was frustrated Senate candidate Sharron Angle of Nevada, who wants to get the U.S. out of the U.N. There was an Ohio congressional candidate who dressed up as a Nazi S.S. officer for a father/son “bonding experience.” Several others advocated eliminating Medicare.

It took a remarkable tide of xenophobia and fear to make any of these candidates at all competitive. Unless unemployment rises well beyond even today’s levels and the foreclose crisis continues indefinitely, it’s hard to see that tide continuing to flow.

Some of the Tea Party’s most prominent candidates would have been considered far-out wing nuts in almost any other campaign season. If conditions in America return to anything resembling normal, those candidates will once again be out of the mainstream. This would make it highly unlikely that in future years Tea Party candidates could win anywhere near the 70 Republican nominations for major office they took this year.

Which means that much of the Tea Party’s future probably rests on how its new officeholders perform. If senators like Ron Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida demonstrate an ability to build coalitions and cooperate with others of less extreme bents – as Scott Brown of Massachusetts has done – they and the group may have a long-term future. But if they develop reputations as nut cases, they will drag their movement down with them.

That doesn’t faze some Tea Partiers. Harmer may be the classic example. He’ll be back for another try two years from now in a district that long sent Republican Richard Pombo to Congress before he was eventually ousted four years ago. But Harmer will assure himself another defeat in 2012 if he becomes vocal in opposing public schooling.

That’s what Pombo did to himself, harping continually against the Endangered Species Act until Democrat Jerry McNerny knocked him off in the Democratic tide of 2006. Pombo is probably finished in politics, as demonstrated by his not even coming close to winning the GOP nomination in a nearby district last spring.

The bottom line: The Tea Party probably doesn’t have much future in California, where Latinos are steadily becoming a more and more important electoral factor. And it will only survive nationally if its leaders can avoid being seen as crazies.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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