The Weekend of Magical Thinking
After its takeover of the Republican Party, the Tea Party is making plans for its takeover of the House.
If Republicans win the midterm elections in a rout, it will be because of people like Brian Hegarty. In January, he appeared on Fox and Friends to talk about a town hall meeting where he asked Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., how Holt could support the Affordable Care Act since it "violated the Constitution." Not long after that he lost his job as a carpenter, which may or may not have had something to do with what his union thought of the TV appearance.
"I can sure as hell attest to the fact that they weren't happy," said Hegarty.
I learned of Hegarty's fate this weekend in the lower level ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel, where he was attending the first-ever conference of the Faith and Freedom Coalition—a new conservative action network launched by former Christian Coalition strategist Ralph Reed. Hegarty was one of 50 people who'd traveled by bus to the conference from New Jersey to hoot and cheer when Anna Little, the Republican candidate in New Jersey's 6th district, gave her speech. Afterward, he was going to climb back onto the bus and go to the rally against the "Ground Zero mosque" in New York City.
"We don't assimilate to every subculture that comes across the border," said Hegarty, explaining why he was going to New York. "They're supposed to come here and assimilate to our Constitution, our laws, and our customs."
The next day, he would bus back down to Washington and attend the second annual Taxpayer March on Washington run by FreedomWorks. Would that be a distraction from the work of electing Anna Little? Hell no, he said. He was going right back to work.
"The Republicans are gonna win the House," he said. "It's a done deal. We just need to do what we said we were gonna do."
As I talked to Hegarty in the short hall next to the main ballroom, Ralph Reed walked back and forth, talking to speakers and reporters, greeting many by name. Hegarty proved what Reed was telling them—there was a possible landslide in the making, and districts no one thought would be on the map, like New Jersey's 6th, were worth fighting for. Reed told the overflowing room that Republicans had a chance to "change the electorate." He remembered his own experience, seeing Florida senatorial candidate Marco Rubio speak when polls showed him getting buried in the Republican primary by Charlie Crist.
"I remember thinking to myself this guy is so fantastic, it's just unfortunate that he can't win," said Reed. "But I wrote him a check anyway. When you have people thinking like that—I don't care if he or she wins or not, I want to give them money—get ready to put on a gown or a tuxedo, because you're going to a victory party. That's how it works. You run people who the pundits and the prognosticators and the pollsters don't think can win. They can make contact with the voters, and the voters get excited."
Reed's conference was not an attempt to energize conservative activists. It was only the latest attempt—one of several this weekend—to try to capture or direct some of the boundless energy of those activists. Since the start of the Tea Party movement in February 2009, they have evolved from fear to resolve to a sort of steely-eyed giddiness in the countdown to the midterms. They now believe they can win everything. If they don't believe that, a Republican strategist will tell them they can.
At Reed's event, the positive reinforcement came from pollsters, candidates, and pundits who people recognized from Fox News. Dick Morris, whose fall from grace 14 years ago was not lurid enough to deny him access to a family-friendly conference, appeared via a recorded video with champagne wishes of massive Republican gains of 60-odd House seats and at least 10 Senate seats.
"I wouldn't rule out the possibility of defeating Kirsten Gillibrand * in New York," said Morris, "or Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut, or Ron Wyden in Oregon, which would bring us up to 54 or 55 seats … but these are not written in stone. These are just polling numbers. You need to make these happen by working in those districts and making it happen."
A happy crowd that swelled to more than 500 people over the course of two days devoured all of this news. In breakout sessions, audience members occasionally expressed doubt and worry that their local candidates would lose to Democrats. They were told what they were getting wrong by strategists who are figuring out ways to maximize Tea Party turnout and liking what they see. (This event was scheduled for the 9/11 weekend to capitalize on interest in the FreedomWorks rally.) According to Deal Hudson, who once ran Catholic outreach for the Bush-Cheney campaign and is now the director of operations at Inside Catholic, the job is pretty easy.
"If you screen for people who attend church every week," said Hudson, "you get the vast majority of Tea Party activists."
In an interview, Reed told me that Republican turnout in 2010 has the potential to exceed "anything we've seen before," and made the case that the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Overtrick software and literature drops were going to be part of that. And he was going to be part of that, which was a surprise in itself. This was his return to the D.C. bubble after everyone wrote him off as a casualty of the Abramoff scandal. The infamous lobbyist hired him to work with Indian casinos; the fallout killed Reed's bid for lieutenant governor of Georgia. Reed doesn't even blink when asked about it now.
"I think I'm in a much better place personally," he said. "And a lot of people said the same thing about Newt Gingrich after he stepped down as speaker. Now, look where he is today. He might be running for president. So I don't know what the future holds."
Gingrich was one of the GOP stars who blessed Reed's weekend comeback with a speech about the coming rout. He also presided over his own celebration on Saturday night—a lavish premiere for America at Risk, the war-on-terror documentary "hosted" by him and his wife Callista. Citizens United, which is releasing the movie, was still tweaking it only days before the premiere. The result: a narrative that makes the case for neoconservative foreign policy by paying tribute to the people who protested the "Ground Zero mosque" in August. In the audience, alongside people like James Woolsey and Doug Schoen, were members of the Tea Party movement who'd scored e-mail invites.
Who else will see Gingrich's film? We don't know. It will play at the RedState Gathering in Texas this week, and it will be distributed on DVD and on college campuses. And it's a natural hit for Tea Partiers. The movie doesn't just reinforce their fears about President Obama's American-ness. It explains why Obama is making them less safe. It re-enacts the old LBJ "Daisy" ad with a fast-cut scene that shows a nuclear missile taking off from Iran, Israelis going about their day, and then, boom—a mushroom cloud. * Reed informed Tea Partiers that they had the ability to remake Congress. Gingrich informed them that they had a chance to save the world.
The weekend ended with that much-hyped taxpayer march. It was the only event of the weekend where nothing new was being sold to the movement. Instead, it was a tribute to what they'd already done, and a pep rally for everything they expected to win.
It was the first Tea Party rally in months that failed to overwhelm. Organizers quietly put the blame for that on Glenn Beck, who'd asked the Tea Party to come to Washington just two weeks earlier. Who had that much time and money to spend traveling to Washington? Yet despite thin turnout and rain and paranoia about milling reporters who were probably trying to "nail" them for the NAACP, the crowd seemed happy—buoyed by the knowledge that they were winning. And by the knowledge that they were now basking in thanks and pleas from the sort of people, like Ralph Reed and Newt Gingrich, who used to lead their party.
"We've rehabilitated the Republican Party," said FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe. "Or as I like to say, we've had a hostile takeover."
Correction, Sept. 13, 2010: The original article misspelled the first name of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. (Return to the corrected sentence.) It also misdescribed a political advertisement, which shows a nuclear missile taking off from Iran, not Iraq. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.