Their candidate lost in the end, but for many in the rapidly expanding “tea party” movement, this fall’s special House race in upstate New York was a “training ground” that taught its cadre of loosely organized grass-roots activists how to challenge both major parties and has only whetted the movement’s appetite for the 2010 midterm elections.
Tea party foot soldiers fueled Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman’s meteoric rise that drove liberal Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava out of the race, giving the anti-tax, anti-spending activists their first real victory.
But the ballot-box clout of the movement remains a question mark after Mr. Hoffman fell in a tight race to Democrat Bill Owens Tuesday, handing Democrats their biggest victory on a night of reverses and giving the party control of the New York House seat for the first time in more than a century.
But despite the close loss, tea party activists insist they have proved this year that they will be a new force to be reckoned with on the American political scene.
“These are people who are slowly starting to focus on elections. Many of them, who had never been involved in politics before, were uninterested in the political parties, but are now treading carefully about how to get involved and where they get involved,” said Brendan Steinhauser, grass-roots director at FreedomWorks, the conservative organization headed by former House Republican leader Dick Armey of Texas.
Virtually all of the activists are new to politics, and the Hoffman campaign tapped into their forces from the start, with the help of FreedomWorks and other groups. Many were given key positions in the Hoffman campaign, where they learned quickly about the nuts-and-bolts of elective politics.
Jennifer Bernstone, of Canastota, N.Y., 36, an actress and acting coach who attended a tea-party Tax Day rally on April 15 and the movement’s huge march on Washington five months later, remembers when she received a call from Hoffman campaign manager Matt Moran in early September.
“I had never in my life been involved in a campaign before. I’m a typical American who hadn’t paid any attention to politics. I didn’t know how to put in a yard sign,” she said.
She was put in charge of setting up the campaign’s headquarters in her town and helped organize Hoffman campaign events there and elsewhere. She set up a Web site that was inundated with thousands of tea party volunteers around the country who made phone calls for the campaign.
“They wanted to make phone calls for Doug Hoffman from all over the country,” she said.
New York Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long said the tea party activists “played a major part in this grass-roots effort, which can only be described as a tax rebellion by a group of people who are sending a message to Washington that we are going to fight to take back our country.”
Election analysts and conservative political organizers predicted that tea party activists will be playing a large role in some of the key House and Senate battleground races next year, regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s race.
“These are not people who are unsure of themselves. I don’t think defeat will force them to reassess. They are sure they are right, and nothing will shake them,” said veteran election handicapper Stuart Rothenberg.
Conservative, tea-party-backed candidates may challenge moderate Republican candidates as the midterm 2010 cycle picks up in earnest, Mr. Steinhauser said.
“They are going to pick and choose what are the best races to do that. I’m hearing that some of those Senate races are going to include Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada and possibly Arkansas,” he said.