Looking back ten years, it’s a toss-up as to whether I found the Tea Party or the Tea Party found me.
In 2009, I was still very much a Republican team player, but my frustration with the party was growing. I’d lined up firmly behind President George W. Bush after 9/11, but by Election Day 2008 had grown weary of his equivocating centrism and unwillingness to punch back at his detractors. I voted for John McCain, but was much more excited about his running mate, Sarah Palin, simply on the grounds that the GOP desperately needed new blood.
Ironically perhaps, it was through an online Governor Mike Huckabee meet-up group that I got my first Tea Party assignment. The editor of a local conservative newspaper was part of the group and was familiar with my right-leaning reportage and op-eds in various local publications. She asked if I would be interested in covering the monthly meeting of the Clackamas County chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP). I accepted, and on a dark and stormy Portland night set out for a rented conference room at a Harley-Davidson dealer off Interstate 205.
There, in a room with folding chairs and packed with people, I got my first glimpse of a movement that would have an historic impact on the trajectory of American politics. To be clear, AFP had been formed by the Koch brothers in 2004 and was not technically a Tea Party incarnation. But fear and loathing of the ideological underpinnings of President Barack Obama’s new administration had swelled their ranks with newcomers. AFP’s leadership swung into high gear, helping to transform the inchoate grassroots uprising into an organized electoral powerhouse. Citizens became politically engaged and began attending meetings, showing up for protests, circulating petitions, and participating in voter registration drives
Tax-and-spend progressives had taken the reins of government at every level—with Obama’s election as the last straw. To not resist was to allow them to consolidate federal power and threaten the Republic as founded.
The first big shocker for Portland’s liberal precincts and aligned media came when a Tea Party rally in the Rose City’s “living room,” Pioneer Courthouse Square, drew eight hundred people. They came carrying signs that read “Taxed Enough Already” and cheered speakers raising alarm about fiscally irresponsible governance that circumvented the ability of middle-and-working-class taxpayers to have any say about how their tax dollars were spent–and often wasted. Other local rallies followed; The Tea Party Express bus made a stop at a downtown business whose owner was in solidarity, and was greeted by hundreds of well-wishing supporters.
One colorful element at the rallies was provided by men and women wearing colonial garb to evoke the patriots who threw bales of tea into Boston Harbor to protest Britain’s taxation without representation. Attendees at Tea Party gatherings ran the gamut from entrepreneurial young Republicans to middle-class marrieds just coming to grips with the fact that a government approving, for example, hundreds of millions for an unnecessary light rail project, was lowering the household standard of living for their children and grandchildren.
In the earliest days of the movement, Democrats dismissed Tea Partiers not as authentically grassroots but as corporate-instigated Astroturf. As the movement exerted a growing influence against Obama’s transformative precepts, reactionary alarm from the left became more vocal, with progressive and Democrat voices characterizing “t-baggers” as right-wing extremists.
In Portland, a call to action came when former Vice President Al Gore brought his Inconvenient Truth tour to Keller Auditorium. The local Tea Party showed up too, pushing back against the ultimate globalist boondoggle. Violence was barely averted when a group of climate-change warriors was confronted after rushing the opposition’s stage across the plaza.
A new group titled the “9/12 Project,” inspired by then-Fox News host Glenn Beck, was instrumental in orchestrating the Taxpayer March on Washington on September 12, 2009. Several Oregon chapters attracted hundreds of grassroots supporters.
The 2010 midterm delivered to Democrats, in President Obama’s words, “a shellacking,” and there was no doubt that the awareness and civil disobedience created under the Tea Party banner had a lot to do with Republicans taking control of the House and picking up seats if not control of the Senate.
Meanwhile, the Clackamas AFP chapter had moved to a larger meeting room, standing room only, and had scored some local victories, defeating a City of Portland attempt to charge Clackamas residents a toll to cross a bridge within the Portland city limits, turning back a tax-leaching intergovernmental urban renewal plan, and rejecting by ballot an auto registration fee-grab by the progressive-dominated Clackamas County Commission. They had gotten a Republican elected to that same body, and on Election Day 2012, despite the disappointing reality of Obama winning a second term, put two more Republicans on the commission, constituting a majority.
Election Day 2014 saw another midterm shellacking of the social justice, blame-America-first Democratic Party. Republicans won back the Senate, and combined with the 2010 result, the total number of Democrat-held House seats lost to the GOP during Barack Obama’s presidency rose to seventy-seven.
The Tea Party faithful showed up in droves that year too, but the designation itself was losing currency by virtue of the movement’s very success. With many in Congress elected by the Tea Party wave or at least concurrent with it, the sense of an inspired band of patriots rebelling against establishment power base lost resonance.
Notwithstanding President Obama’s charismatic success, the Tea Party had helped take back the reins of congressional government, many governorships, and countless local offices from the left. With the Democrats stripped of power, the movement was growing into something more all-encompassing, something not just Democrats needed to worry about.
A broader manifestation of populist, grassroots revolt was waiting in the wings, its standard-bearer waiting at the top of an escalator.