On April 15, I covered the Cincinnati Tea Party rally for PJTV. It was quite a scene. There were over 12,000 people in attendance, filling all but the nosebleed seats at the University of Cincinnati’s basketball arena, and even though Sean Hannity was a last-minute no-show the crowd was fired up.
When speaker Sonja Schmidt dubbed Barack Obama a “one-term President,” the crowd roared, and delivered a standing ovation. The SEIU and ACORN were booed, and various Ohio candidates and officeholders who stand for smaller government were cheered. Signs were waved (“Will Work For Liberty”) and t-shirts were sold.
But although that rally -- and the hundreds like it around the country that day -- was a scene of great excitement, that kind of excitement isn’t the future of the Tea Party movement. The future, instead, is something much less glamorous, but much more important, than mass rallies and marches.
For an example of what that means, look to the Utah Tea Party’s campaign against incumbent Republican Senator Robert Bennett. Bennett is a Republican, true enough, but his support for bailouts and big government has made him unpopular with Tea Partiers in Utah. They’re planning to teach him a lesson.
The Utah Tea Party movement was started after sportscar-builder David Kirkham saw blog reports of the very first protest marches against President Obama’s bailouts, back in February of 2009. Kirkham figured he could do the same, quickly organized a rally at the Utah State Capitol, and helped build an organization that has held many similar events since. But what to do beyond rallies?
In deep-red Utah, electing Republicans wasn’t a challenge. But, Kirkham concluded, electing small-government Republicans wasn’t to be taken for granted. His group decided to target the nominating process for Bennett’s seat, which in Utah involves a convention process.
Tea Party activists trained and ran for slots as convention delegates, and many were elected. The result: Things are looking bad for Bennett. A poll of convention delegates conducted this week by the Salt Lake Tribune found Bennett a distant third in the nomination race. It also found that 68 percent of the delegates -- more than two-thirds -- identify themselves as supporters of the Tea Party movement.
It’s possible that some political miracle will save Bennett in the next couple of weeks -- never underestimate the wiliness of an incumbent whose job is on the line. But even if that happens, you can bet that he’ll be a lot more aware of constituents’ views on the importance of small government, and far less likely to take those constituents for granted in favor of Washington conventional wisdom.
The Utah effort isn’t unique. In many states, Tea Partiers are taking over the local GOP apparatus, running for precinct chair or other low-level offices, as they try to take over the party from the ground up.
The Cincinnati Tea Party folks are doing that in Ohio, discomfiting the entrenched Republican Party establishment to the point that it’s actually spending money campaigning against them. Similar efforts are under way in Illinois, Georgia, and elsewhere.
The first stage of Tea Party rallies was very important. The political apparatchiks and the Big Media folks built up -- quite deliberately -- a sense of inevitability around the Obama machine’s agenda of big government dominance. It was unstoppable, and wildly popular, according to the conventional storyline.
The rallies proved that it wasn’t as wildly popular as all that, and inspired many people who felt -- as the storyline was intended to make them feel -- powerless, outnumbered, and marginalized to realize that they were none of those things. That was a vital first step, the equivalent of the kid shouting that the Emperor was naked.
But rallies without follow-through are just rallies. And the Tea Party movement is now following through with the gruntwork of politics: organizing precincts, waging primary battles, registering voters, and compiling mailing lists.
None of this stuff sounds exciting. It doesn’t look exciting, either. At my blog, InstaPundit, people e-mail me pictures from organizing meetings. The pictures aren’t visually interesting -- they generally show a lot of people sitting on folding chairs in a meeting room somewhere. But when I post them, I always get mail from readers who are excited to see this sort of thing going on.
And, really, why shouldn’t they be excited? This is democracy in action. If we’re not excited about that, what should we be excited about?
Examiner contributor Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee. He hosts “Instavision” on PJTV.com.