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Matthew Towery Columnist

Published Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Establishment terrified by tea party

WASHINGTON, D.C. – It’s always funny when I’m in Washington to see the staffers, aides, lobbyists and elected officials as they do their thing. They can make you feel like an outsider -- unless you were there doing what they did when Ronald Reagan was sworn in. Then you realize that they are just a younger version of you.

With age and experience there comes a bit of wisdom. Talking to various Washington insiders these last few days, I’ve noticed one big theme: The GOP Establishment has no idea how to handle the so-called “tea party movement,” and the Democrats don’t have the slightest idea of the people who make up this growing group of activists.

Understand that I was writing about this effort this time last year, so I’ve kept an eye on this movement. And I’ve watched as elected officials in the GOP’s Establishment wing let the tea party band march right by them -- too afraid to embrace them for fear that they would be viewed as being “radical.”

Now, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that if “tea party” candidates who are running for open seats in Congress or who are challenging incumbents win their party’s nomination, it will doom the Republicans in the general election when “more moderate” swing voters come to the polls.

What’s really funny here is that people like Sen. John McCain, who was never accepted by the GOP’s old-line establishment, is now viewed as part of it and unworthy of support because he is too “liberal.” Believe me, the whole notion of a conservative grassroots movement that they can’t get a handle on has this town’s Republican operatives totally baffled.

The Democrats are even more in the dark. They are convinced that the tea party crowd is the same as the so-called “birthers,” who are convinced President Obama was not born in the United States and should not be eligible to serve as president. They welcome this movement because they believe it will split the GOP up and lead to weaker and less experienced candidates in November, or cause some large segment of the Republican vote (either establishment or tea party) to sit out the general election this year.

Now, you have to understand that Washington is about the last place left in the world where men wear ties even at evening events on a Sunday night. I love the town, and it is in my blood, but I’m gone from here so much that I really can see that this place just talks to itself ... just like in the 1980s or 1990s or any decade you can name. It is a company town stuck on the company (that being politics and government) gossip and inside view.

Here’s what I think will come of the tea party movement. I think in some cases there will be tea party Republicans who run and clean the clock of their opponent in Republican primaries. There will be other cases where the tea party candidate will be just so inexperienced or the person they challenge will seem more than conservative enough to give the tea party candidate a huge defeat.

But either way, it will not split the GOP this year. The tea party movement, although not as large as some wish to portray it, is a powerful force that is more a measure of how intense voter turnout on the Republican side will be in November -- no matter who a nominee might be for a given office.

I keep reading media reports trying to portray individuals in this movement as racist, just as they just won’t give up on the alleged racial slurs hurled at certain members of Congress when the health care bill was being considered. The media, like many of the other inside-the-Beltway insiders, are characterizing the tea party as the result of a frustration over taxes, growth of government and just plain fear about their future liberty and security, and branding its members as a fringe element, with a hint of racism as part of their profile.

I don’t buy it. Whether this is a movement big enough to transform the GOP into a more conservative party, I’m not sure. But my polling tells me one thing for sure: You are going to see people voting in GOP primaries that are contested this year like never before. And that would tell me we could see an avalanche of voters going Republican in November. The tea party effort is both symbolic and a catalyst. But it will blend into what I think will be a rush of voter intensity the GOP hasn’t seen since 1994. Oh, yes, I liked this town a lot in those days.

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(Matthew Towery heads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage. His column is distributed by Morris News and Creators’ Syndicate.)

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