Last week I returned from my ill-starred book leave to cover the downfall of Eric Cantor. Half of my coverage focused on how Cantor and the media had blown it and failed to see an upset coming; I wore my hairshirt with pride, having briefly interviewed Brat and covered Cantor's desperation but not really dug into the race.
My mea culpas have not saved me from getting lumped in with the drive-by media. Joshua Green points to a brand-new Brookings paper from University of Washington professor Christopher Parker, who has been studying the Tea Party for years. (I met him when we appeared at an October 2010 panel at Berkeley, and my subsequent story about how the left—though not Parker—seemed to be underrating the movement generated some of the most erudite angry email I've ever read.) In the paper I'm literally the first example of a reporter getting it wrong.
But that wasn't what I said. In February, yes, I reported from Texas for a few days and concluded that the media had overrated the political threats facing Sen. John Cornyn. "Last week Cornyn joined GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell and cast a vote for a one-year delay in the debt limit, punting the issue past the 2014 elections," I wrote. "In Washington this was portrayed as Frodo and Sam locking arms and walking to the mouth of Mount Doom."
Point was, Cornyn was fine, and to the frustration of Tea Party activists, the national "movement" was not helping them take out their targets. (I covered much of that in a follow-up piece.) I'm a bit lazy about suggesting subheds, so an editor slapped on this one: "People are hyping the Tea Party threat to Texas Sen. John Cornyn. The truth is these grassroots conservatives don’t have a chance."
These grassroots conservatives. No problem with that subhed, if interpreted fairly. The people who wanted to kneecap Cornyn, like those working in a Dallas-area House race, were cursed by bad candidates and a national "Tea Party movement" that seemed to be entering the inevitable, senescent "racket" stage. They did not have a chance against Cornyn. The media had wildly overrated the backlash potential of Cornyn's debt limit vote.
That was the story I got out of Texas. The story out of Virginia, four months later, was very different. Ironically, Parker and I don't really disagree—the search for a 2014 Narrative led to dizzying media pingpong, in which each race meant either that the Tea Party was dead or that it was back and better than ever. The Tea Party candidate lost in North Carolina? Dead! The Tea Party candidate won in Nebraska? Alive! The Tea Party candidate lost in Kentucky? Dead! And so on.
I've been making three big points about the Cantordammerung. One: Populist conservatives and libertarians, rebranded as "the Tea Party," have largely captured the GOP. Two: To the consternation of grassroots activists, there are plenty of buck-raking groups (and in the case of Texas, candidates) who want their money for "Tea Party" causes but can't (or won't) actually organize. Three: It's better to see what the grassroots are up to, so reporters should follow that closely—either in person, or via social media, or by some combination of methods.