Brianna Aubin stood in the front row of the rally on the West Lawn of the Capitol, holding aloft a sign hand-lettered in green: “Because my life is mine by right and will not be used to maintain a world that doesn’t know it.”
That slogan was paraphrased from a monologue spoken by Francisco d’Anconia in Ayn Rand’s classic libertarian novel Atlas Shrugged. “I read it in high school, but it wasn’t until the past year that I realized how accurate it was,” said Aubin, a 25-year-old who had traveled from Illinois to D.C. for the event.
Aubin was among the thousands who turned out for the second “9-12 Taxpayer March on Washington” organized by FreedomWorks. Liberal bloggers gloated that the attendance for Sunday’s event was significantly smaller than the previous year, but this year’s march came only two weeks after a crowd estimated at upwards of 300,000 showed up for Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” event at the Lincoln Memorial. While observers debated Sunday’s crowd size, Massachusetts blogger Pete Ingemi offered a more concrete analysis: “Today was tens of thousands and Beck had hundreds of thousands, but the only numbers that really matter are the numbers on November 2.”
Indeed, with seven weeks to go until the crucial mid-term congressional elections, conservatives have turned their attention to the project of transforming protest-rally activism into the kind of disciplined mobilization that produces tangible political results. Time is short and the task is large, and the challenge for Republicans is to find some way to harness this grassroots energy.
A year ago, the Tea Party movement was a new phenomenon, inspirational to its members and mystifying to the political press. That was before last November, when the GOP swept off-year gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and before the January shocker in which Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts special election for the Senate seat held for decades by Ted Kennedy. Since Brown’s upset victory, the Tea Party has garnered such saturation coverage by the national media that nearly every political development is now viewed through a prism of how it affects, or has been affected by, this movement that sprang into existence scarcely 18 months ago.
Tea Party activism has been credited with having a decisive influence in several GOP primaries — most recently Joe Miller’s stunning upset of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski — but many political observers remain unconvinced that the movement will pass the make-or-break test of defeating Democrats on Nov. 2.
Republicans hope that this year’s mid-terms will mirror 1994, when a backlash against President Clinton helped the GOP gain its first House majority in 40 years. The situation this year is much different than in 1994, when Newt Gingrich and the “Contract With America” led Republicans to a net gain of 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. A similar pickup in November would give the GOP a slender 231-204 majority in the House and put Republicans very close to a Senate majority, and some conservatives expect even larger gains.
More cautious voices, however, warn against expecting 2010 to be a repeat of 1994. Chief among the differences is that this year, the Democrats are braced for the blow. The New York Times reported last week that Demoratic leaders were instituting a program of electoral “triage” to concentrate resources strategically with the objective of maintaining Nancy Pelosi’s House majority. And as a top House Republican aide told Byron York last week, even for the GOP to gain the minimum 39 seats necessary to recapture the House majority “is a very steep hill to climb.”
Steep as that hill may be, the Obama administration’s unpopular policies have made it easier to climb. Hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus spending haven’t reduced unemployment rates, and the public has seemingly grown weary of Obama’s “blame Bush” rhetoric. Even the best defensive measures by Democrats could prove insufficient to stop an incoming tidal wave of voter resentment. Various poll indicators — including the “wrong track” number and a GOP advantage on the so-called “generic ballot” question — give credence to the belief that voters are in a mood expressed by one homemade sign spotted at Sunday’s rally: “Take Out the Trash Nov. 2!”
That kind of grassroots resentment still frightens some Republicans, including Delaware Rep. Mike Castle. According to one recent poll, the establishment-backed moderate is trailing Tea Party conservative Christine O’Donnell by a 47-44 margin going into Tuesday’s GOP Senate primary. An unexpected upset by O’Donnell would elicit groans from Republican leadership — who consider Castle a far better candidate for the general election — but it might be a far more ominous portent for Democrats. After all, if grassroots conservatives are energized enough to knock off a well-funded candidate like Castle in the Delaware primary, what unimaginable havoc might they wreak on Nov. 2?
Fifty days remain from now until Election Day, when results will not be measured by poster slogans and crowd estimates — 50 days for the Tea Party movement to live up to the motto of Sunday’s rally: “Remember in November.”