Party of the Right
FreedomWorks shows the GOP how to throw a victory celebration.
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"I'm a Cleveland Browns fan. I've never won anything," says Adam Brandon. It's 1 a.m. Wednesday *, and Brandon, communications director for the conservative group FreedomWorks, is standing in the lobby of the organization's office on Pennsylvania Avenue. Every surface—tables, shelves, floor—is covered with confetti. The two kegs are kicked. Rows of computers are littered with half-eaten burritos and pizza crusts. This is what victory looks like. "I've never felt this," he says. "It's euphoric!"
It's also deserved. Over the last two years, no group has been more involved in recruiting, funding, and publicizing Tea Party candidates than FreedomWorks. Whether or not you buy its "grassroots" rhetoric—it was founded by former Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey—the group can take at least some credit for Tuesday's Republican sweep.
Brandon lifts a giant wine glass. "After 2008, everyone was saying Charlie Crist was the future of the Republican Party," he says. "The day we endorsed Rubio, it was, Rubio couldn't possibly win." This election confirms once and for all that America is "a center-right country," he says. Now the Tea Party enters a new phase. "The Tea Party is done with street protests," he says. "We're done, that's it. Now we've got Congress." Now comes the policymaking. For those who say the Tea Party has no legislative ideas, Brandon has three words: "Here it comes."
Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, comes over wearing a pinstriped suit jacket and jeans. "This is the most awesome party," he says. Brandon agrees: "You'll find this party is more exciting than the Republicans'. Our activists are fired up." (Indeed, the GOP victory party was deliberately low-key.) Someone made a bunch of T-shirts featuring a cartoon of Kibbe's face, mutton chops and all, with the words, "Chops You Can Believe In."
A cheer goes up in the next room. The results of the Illinois Senate race are in: Republican Mark Kirk has won. FreedomWorks isn't afraid to take credit for many of the night's victories. Of the 113 candidates FreedomWorks endorsed, the number who have won their races as of 1 a.m. is 62 and climbing.
For the last two years, FreedomWorks has boosted Tea Party candidates. Now it's their job to hold those candidates to their promises. "We've got them on the record now," says Brandon. "If you got elected on the Contract from America, we expect" you to support fiscally conservative policies. Tea Party candidates may be tempted to moderate, Pappas says. But he doesn't think they will—at least not if they want to survive. FreedomWorks will remind the new class why they got elected in the first place, and will encourage constituents to do the same. The 1994 Gingrich "revolution" fizzled out. But 2010 isn't 1994, says Pappas: In 1994, there was no outside group like the Tea Party holding politicians accountable.
"The first test is earmarks," says Kibbe. He expects Republicans to be about half "appropriators," half anti-pork. FreedomWorks will be supporting the latter. "It's not like eliminating earmarks fixes everything," says Kibbe, "but it changes the culture." Max Pappas, VP for public policy, says an early goal will be to make Congress extend the Bush tax cuts—or, as he puts it, "prevent the Obama tax hikes."
Russ Walker, political director, points to a few districts that the Tea Party can take special credit for. There were two Republican pickups in Colorado by Scott Tipton, Col.-3, and Cary Gardner, Col.-4, where FreedomWorks was active, for example. They also endorsed senators-elect Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, and Ron Johnson back when it was unfashionable, Walker says. There were disappointments. Walker thinks Harry Reid's seat was a missed opportunity. "It's like you got to the Super Bowl but you didn't get the ring," he says. What could Sharron Angle have done better? "I'd rather not talk about it," he says, although he does argue that she erred by avoiding the media. "You should be able to defend your positions," he says.
Around 2 a.m., Brandon decides to call it a night. He has to be up at 6 a.m. to help coordinate Armey's media appearances. Someone offers their condolences. "No, this is awesome!" he says, pounding the table. "I've been waiting for this for two fucking years!" They'll worry about the mess in the morning.
Correction, Nov. 3: This article originally described a scene as taking place "Tuesday night." It should have been Wednesday morning. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.