Bouncers for the Tea Party

Democrats hoped the Tea Party would rebel against Republicans. It’s not happening.

A Tea Party rally in San Francisco

Please, don’t get the impression that Everett Wilkinson hates third parties. Or that he likes Republicans. “I’m one of those people who thinks Republicans, in many cases, have messed up as much as Democrats,” says the South Florida-based Tea Party activist. “The Republican majority we used to have is just as responsible for the deficit as the Democrats.” Yet Wilkinson is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit to get a third party—which also calls itself the “Florida Tea Party”—to give up its name. When I ask whether the ultimate goal of the lawsuit is to prevent the “Tea Party” from hurting the GOP, Wilkinson drops the pox-on-both-houses talk. Instead he sounds like Karl Rove with a whiteboard, pointing out the races in which the “Tea Party” could get X many votes to hurt Y candidates.

“They’re running in very close races that conservatives can win,” he says. “They’re trying to hand the election to Alan Grayson,” a Democrat serving his first term in the House. “That’s a race conservatives can win.”

This is the fear that Democrats fervently hope is legitimate: The Tea Party will tear the GOP apart. But Tea Party activists aren’t acting the part. On the contrary, any attempt to break away and split conservative votes for the midterms is met with several megatons of force, from the courts to the Fox News studio.

Democrats have worked so hard to foment and promote Republican infighting that you can almost hear them panting. In my inbox are five e-mails from Democratic strategists about Jeff Clark, a dissatisfied Virginia congressional candidate who’s running as an independent for the seat held by Democrat Tom Perriello because he doesn’t like GOP nominee Robert Hurt. Polls suggest that someone like Clark could split conservative votes and help the liberal incumbent.

Republicans aren’t blinking. “Tom Perriello has done so much to alienate so many people that the folks in that district will look past whatever reservations they have about Robert Hurt,” says Dan Shipley, a spokesman for the Virginia GOP. “Clark is trying to exploit something that’s not there.”

The evidence backs up the GOP’s Pollyanna theory. When Clark made his debut appearance before Tea Partiers, he was roundly heckled for giving Perriello a potentially easier path to re-election. In New York, rather than being rewarded for running a good race and looking for a rematch, Tea Party favorite Doug Hoffman has turned to raising chickens and is being brusquely shoved aside for a newer, prime-time-readier candidate. The Tea Party, far from being disgruntled, takes after third party insurgents like blue crabs take after the one smartass who tries to evade the barrel.

“Tea party activists know that a third party candidate running under the name ‘Tea Party’ can do nothing but siphon votes and help Democrats,” says Chuck Muth, a Nevada Republican strategist. “The activists get it. If more than 428 of them vote for a ‘Tea Party’ candidate instead of a Republican, that’s a problem.”

Muth didn’t pick that number at random: 428 votes was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s margin when he narrowly defeated Republican John Ensign in 1998. (Ensign went on to win the state’s other Senate seat and, allegedly, get his parents to pay off his mistress’s family.) This year, Reid consistently trails in polls against Sharron Angle, an ultraconservative former state legislator who rode Tea Party endorsements to a Republican primary win. Democrats want to believe that Scott Ashjian, a shady and unknown businessman who got onto the ballot as the “Tea Party” candidate, will scoop up thousands of votes and let Reid squeak by.

Not likely. Local Tea Party activists got the jump on Ashjian, using a listserv to coordinate attacks on him, spread facts about his business and legal problems, and get as many people as possible on the record denouncing him. In short order he plunged from 18 percent to 5 percent in statewide polls. “We neutralized him pretty quickly,” says Eric Odom, a Tea Party activist who relocated to Nevada, in part, to help clobber Reid. “We bought the Web address he was advertising on his Web site and pointed to StopAshjian.com—that only cost, like, $100. We traded talking points. We kind of shoved him into the spotlight, and it destroyed him, because he wasn’t ready for it.”

The campaign against Ashjian—whose campaign, such as it is, ignored e-mails and phone calls—included the accusation that he was a “plant” forced into the race by Reid himself. It was a popular accusation, repeated ad infinitum on Fox News and talk radio. No one, however, knows whether it is true.

“It was obvious to us that the Nevada candidate was a Reid plant, although we couldn’t prove it to say it,” says Sal Russo, president of the Tea Party Express, which ran an ad telling Ashjian to “get lost” and quit. “Little doubt in my mind.”

The same thing is happening in Florida, where the much-maligned “Tea Party” is battling the charge that it’s funded by Alan Grayson. The charge is mainly based on a 2008 payment Grayson made to Doug Guetzloe, a radio host and strategist who helps run the party, and another payment to a pollster who is now running as a “Tea Party” candidate for the state legislature.

“This is Republican B.S.,” says Guetzloe. “I’ve seen polls where the ‘Florida Tea Party’ does better than the GOP candidates, and that’s because the Florida Republican Party is sinking and sinking. They’re just afraid that the ‘Florida Tea Party’ is going to overtake them.”

It’s all very confusing to Peg Dunmire, the “Tea Party” candidate who’s running against Grayson and claims not even to have been asked whether the rumor is true. “I have tracked the 17 articles about this—I did a research project on this, and realized that everyone was pulling this stuff from one article without checking.”

When she talks about her party or the fear that she’ll help re-elect Grayson, Dunmire sounds the same notes as the Perotistas and Naderites of yore. “I say we live in a land of competition,” she says. “For the last 16 years we have as a nation been dissatisfied with the performance of Congress. It doesn’t matter who’re sending, Republicans or Democrats. The public says, we don’t like what Congress is doing.”

Those, of course, are also the things that Tea Party activists—the kind without scare quotes—say before grudgingly backing Republicans. “I was registered Libertarian,” shrugs Eric Odom. “I voted for Bob Barr in 2008. So that third-party option has already been tried. Doing that doesn’t outweigh the benefits of beating Democrats.”

Like Slateon Facebook. Follow Slate on Twitter.