In 2009, Rick Santelli’s epic CNBC rant on the floor of the Chicago stock exchange lambasting President Obama’s mortgage relief contained the legendary line “We’re thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July.” This single sentence precipitated a right-wing political movement, funded by corporate interests, but still in part a grassroots force, known as the Tea Party. The long-term salience of the Tea Party, and whether or not it has been absorbed into the mainstream of the Republican Party, has been hotly debated, but it remains that its rise has greatly impacted US politics.
The signs were evident that a wave of political change was coming, and it could be seen in town hall meetings across the country. Longtime centrist Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter was challenged at a meeting by a constituent irate about what he saw as elitist censorship, and went on to lose in the 2010 senate Democratic primary. South Carolina Republican Representative Bob Inglis, not a liberal by any stretch of the imagination, confronted screaming constituents by telling them to “turn Glenn Beck (a conservative talk show host) off.” He was defeated in the 2010 Republican primary for his seat. Delaware Republican Representative Mike Castle, booed at a town hall for saying that Obama is a citizen, lost in the 2010 Senate primary to a candidate who had to reassure voters that she was not a witch. The Tea Party revolution had a major electoral impact, causing Republicans to gain a whopping 63 seats in the house.
Democrats today find themselves at a similar juncture. Here we are, with a president we vigorously oppose on nearly every front. Without the outlandish conspiracy theories and bigotry espoused by many in the initial Tea Party, Democrats can assemble a movement to take back the House and Senate. This is our tea party moment, and nobody will silence us.
Just look at what has gone on so far, just a few weeks into the Trump administration. The days following the inauguration, more than one million women marched on Washington D.C. and hundreds of other cities across the US to fight for their rights. These marches included demonstrations even in parts of the US considered deeply Republican. More recently, as the Republicans have begun to undo Obamacare, Democrats and independents all across the country have flooded town halls demanding that their elected officials protect access to healthcare for millions of Americans. Just last week, in a fashion strikingly reminiscent to the 2009/2010 Tea Party’s town hall confrontations, Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz was chanted down by an angry crowd, with hundreds more outside the packed auditorium calling for him to be held accountable to his constituents. Jason Chaffetz does not represent a deeply Democratic district; in the last 15 years, no Democrat has gotten over 35% in the district’s various similar iterations. California Republican Representative Tom McClintock had to be escorted from his town hall thanks to crowds of jeering protesters. His Democratic opponent last year got just 37% of the vote, while no Democrat even made it to the runoff in 2014. The backlash is not confined to blue states.
Consider this a call to action. There are massive pick-up opportunities in 2018, along with important red state Senate Democrats to defend. Start organizing now. Recruit candidates, register voters, organize fundraisers. It will take an early effort to channel this energy into the coming elections.
However, Democrats have opportunities coming up in the short term. In Georgia, the nomination of Tom Price for Health and Human Services Secretary left an open seat where a special election will be held April 18th. One stellar Democratic candidate is the energetic, well-moneyed Jon Ossoff. In Kansas, the 4th Congressional District, formerly held by now-CIA director Mike Pompeo, has a special election coming up April 11th. Democrats recently nominated Army veteran and civil rights lawyer James Thompson, who will face the unpopular Brownback administration’s Treasurer Ron Estes. There is also a contested race this spring coming up in Montana. While these three states voted Republican, if Democrats can translate anti-Trump energy into turnout, these generally low turnout special elections represent amazing opportunities. It’s important to help these candidates any way you can, especially if you’re an American national and can donate or volunteer somehow.
Democrats have an incredible amount of anti-Trump momentum at their disposal. Whether or not they can translate it into a powerful electoral movement like the one sparked by Rick Santelli’s rant remains to be seen. With universal effort, passion, and a drive to stop Donald Trump’s radical agenda, Democrats can turn this moment into a lasting movement.