By almost any measure, the basement meeting room of the Longmont VFW is one of the dingiest meeting spaces in Boulder County. The ceiling is claustrophobically low, and because each row of fluorescent lights running the length of the vast room has at least one burned out panel, the lighting is dim and renders visitors with a bit of a sickly, jaundiced glow. The heavy door is wedged open with a piece of broken cinderblock, and speakers must compete with the grating mechanical noise of an ancient ice-maker wheezing away somewhere in the shadows. On the wall by the door is a forlorn and forgotten string of colored letters spelling “Happy Birthday,” and the whole place is tinged with the ghostly exhaust of cigarette smoke seeping downstairs from the bar on the main floor.
And yet on this Tuesday night, Sept. 14, the room is crowded with people campaigning for office, including Tim Leonard, who’s running for State Senate District 14; Daniel Martin, the candidate for Boulder County Clerk and Recorder; state Board of Education candidate Kaye Ferry; and county commissioner hopeful Dick Murphy, among several others. Scott Starin, the Boulder County Republican Party chairman, is in attendance and so too is Longmont City Councilwoman Katie Witt.
They’ve come to this shabby cave of a meeting room to participate in a form of campaigning that is unique to this election cycle, but which without question will become a rite of passage for anyone running on a conservative platform in the future, not just in Boulder County but in rented halls across the country—they’re here to pay homage to the local Tea Party chapter. And it’s not just the small fry candidates for such low-level offices as county clerk or coroner who’ve made this pilgrimage in the past several months. The Longmont 9/12 Tea Party, as it’s officially known, has hosted Republican gubernatorial candidates Scott McInnis and Dan Maes, Senate candidate Ken Buck and Congressional candidate Cory Gardner.
As is by now well-known, the Tea Party is a national movement of conservative voters fed up with federal stimulus packages, private industry bail-outs, “Obamacare” and the ineffectiveness of Republican politicians to oppose the Democrats who champion them. Their enemies are “progressives” of any political stripe, politicians who they see as eroding the power of the Constitution, growing the influence of government and lavishing money on entitlement programs. Tea Party advocates cross easily and often into the realm of conspiracy. For example, they see the hand of the United Nations reaching all the way down to the local level: A recent move by the St. Vrain Valley School District to start a “meatless Mondays” menu was blasted at the Sept. 14 meeting as part of a UN global warming agenda that threatens to erode America’s sovereignty—and that makes them easy targets for lampooning.
But the group has proved that conservative candidates dismiss them at their own peril. While some of the Tea Party’s ideas are wacky, their core values of small government, Constitutional dominion and fiscal responsibility have struck a deeper chord among frustrated voters than any other political movement in recent memory. Spurred by conservative commentators like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, Tea Partiers have upset the apple cart in races across the nation. From Christine O’Donnell’s galvanic upset over Mike Castle in Delaware to Dan Maes’ dark horse primary victory over GOP apparatchik Scott McInnis here in Colorado (albeit with more than a little help from McInnis’ self-detonation during a plagiarism scandal), the Tea Party has made itself felt during this election cycle. That influence will likely do nothing but grow in the coming years.
“It’s pure citizen activism at its heart,” said Scott Starin, the Boulder County GOP chairman.
Starin’s very presence at the Longmont 9/12 Tea Party’s monthly meeting is evidence of how seriously the political machinery is taking these citizen activists. Starin had walked into the lion’s den to explain the GOP’s reluctance to embrace Maes as its candidate for governor. Maes is the darling of many Tea Party members and the fact that the GOP had asked him to step aside in favor of a more electable candidate was evidence to them that their votes are being taken away. As one woman at the meeting put it, “If we give up our chance to pick our own candidate, we will never get it back.”
It didn’t take long for Starin to feel the wrath when it was his turn to speak; when he said the situation had been difficult for the Republican Party, a woman from the audience shouted him down.
“We don’t care about the Republican Party,” she yelled. “Screw the Republican Party!”
Her outburst was met with vigorous applause.
While most politicos do their best to avoid angry and unruly crowds, Starin took the browbeating in stride because, in the words of gubernatorial monkey wrench Tom Tancredo, the Tea Party is the “new Republican Machine.” And as such, it demands that GOP functionaries genuflect before it.
Travis Whipple, the Longmont 9/12 Tea Party chairman, who is one of the group’s founders, points to Maes and Senate candidate Ken Buck as evidence as to why.
“At the state assembly, it was asked, ‘How many of you are here for the first time,’” Whipple said. “And over 50 percent stood up. There’s no hard numbers associated with this, but it’s the common consensus that the vast majority of that 50 percent were Tea Party, 9/12 or liberty-type group members.”
The local chapter was founded with the goal of educating voters by putting the candidates right in front of them, and motivating them to take the decision as to which candidate would run out of the hands of the party elite. The VFW hall was filled with people who’d never given a single thought to politics before last year but who ended up attending caucuses and becoming delegates.
With no small help from the Tea Party, Maes and Buck were upset winners in the primary, beating candidates with wide institutional favor within the Republican Party, Scott McInnis and Jane Norton, respectively (although those candidates’ shortcoming shouldn’t be underestimated; McInnis imploded due to the plagiarism scandal, and Norton fell out of favor when she bypassed the assembly process to petition her name onto the ballot).
“Everybody has underestimated the impact of the Tea Party,” Starin said. “The Republican Party, either the hierarchy or the elitists in the party, took them for granted, or didn’t fully estimate the impact that the Tea Party and the Tea Party movement had on politics this year.”
“The Tea Party doesn’t want to be dictated to as to who its candidates are,” Whipple said.
Compared to other chapters around the state, the Longmont group is tiny. Whipple counts four to 10 people as hardcore activists; the group has only been able to walk one Boulder County precinct in support of candidates it favors. Depending on the guests, monthly meetings attract between 25 and 60 people. In comparison, the Loveland chapter, which has been around longer, has drawn hundreds to its meetings.
But Whipple is confident that the group will only grow and continue to be active both locally and statewide even after the election, particularly by keeping tabs on those who make it into office.
“We’re not just going to let them go into office and forget about them,” he said. “We’re here to stay. …We want to let our elected officials know, ‘We’re watching you now. We’ve been awakened and we’re going to hold you accountable and if you have to go through a primary the next time around, you will go through a primary the next time around.’ Hopefully with more time behind us, by 2012, we will have more volunteers, we will be more organized and we will be a much louder voice and a much bigger source of influence.”
It’s a message that’s been received loud and clear, at least at the Boulder County level of the Republican Party.
“(The Tea Party) has had a tremendous impact on elections this year and in terms of party motivation,” Starin said. “I think the lesson that (the GOP) has learned is that they need to adhere to the conservative principles which Republicans espouse, and that electing moderate Republicans who don’t adhere to those principles only damages the party.”