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Topics: House of Representatives

Dave Brat's win over Eric Cantor reminds us of what the Tea Party is --- and isn't

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Opinion,Virginia,David Freddoso,Columnists,House of Representatives,Tea Party,2014 Elections,Eric Cantor,Magazine,Dave Brat

Washington went into shock this week when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., lost his primary to an unknown college professor named Dave Brat.

The result was unusual even among upsets because it came about without the slightest warning. Many candidates realize too late that they're in trouble — it's hard to think of another one caught so completely unaware on election night as Cantor was.

Some blamed the immigration issue, which Cantor had spent a large sum trying to defuse, for his downfall. Others faulted the ambitious majority leader for neglecting his constituents. Others pointed to negative ads that backfired or hinted at a Democratic conspiracy to cross over and vote the GOP ballot.

Probably none of these explanations are sufficient. But one thing we know did not win the race for Brat was any sort of organized effort by the national Tea Party organizations that have proliferated since 2010.

That didn't stop them from claiming credit, of course. “We are proud to stand with Dave Brat in his election and look forward to working with him to reform Washington, D.C.,” wrote FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe in a post-election email. Statements also came in quickly from the Tea Party Patriots Victory Fund (whose subject line had Brat's name as “Brent”) and L. Brent Bozell of the Dump the Leadership Campaign. There's no shame in skipping a race like this one, but not one of these groups played a role.

The result has prompted many commentators to ask, “Is the Tea Party dead?” There is more than one way to answer. For some, Cantor's defeat means the answer is “no.” A better answer might be, “I don't think 'Tea Party' means what you think it means.”

Up to now, the media had been pronouncing the Tea Party dead mostly based on two races this year -- the always-doomed challenge to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, and the North Carolina Senate primary -- just because a couple of national groups that embrace the Tea Party label were involved. But why would such hopeless races as these (especially the Kentucky one) be determinative of anything? These same groups just got a candidate nominated for Senate in Nebraska, and they are now likely to repeat the feat in Mississippi, having forced incumbent Republican Sen. Thad Cochran into a runoff.

But in Brat's win over Cantor, these groups were nowhere to be found. Only two groups helped out — neither one describes itself as “Tea Party” linked — with a combined $10,000 or so. For comparison, the American Chemistry Council alone spent 30 times that amount to help Cantor, whose campaign had a budget 40 times as large as Brat's.

The rush by national groups to associate themselves with Brat is a reminder that the very concept of “Tea Party” is murky. When candidates aren't fighting over the label, national groups are using it to raise money. A few of those groups even spend the money on candidates (some don't), but even then their choices may or may not line up those of local activists who also embrace the “Tea Party” label.

What is the Tea Party? In 2009, faced with bailouts and the deflation of a government-created housing bubble, Americans who had previously paid little attention suddenly became involved in politics. They staged protests, donated small-dollar amounts and voted -- many for the first time. Their energy helped topple entrenched Republican incumbents and wrest Congress from the Democrats. But they weren't doing anything new -- these were all things conservatives had done in previous times when the movement was strong.

Is the Tea Party dead? Wrong question. The Tea Party is a past event. It changed conservatism and Republicanism. At times like this, we see how.

DAVID FREDDOSO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is the former Editorial Page Editor for the Examiner and the New York Times-bestselling author of "Spin Masters: How the Media Ignored the Real News and Helped Re-elect Barack Obama." He has also written two other books, "The Case Against Barack Obama" (2008) and "Gangster Government" (2011).
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