In the days leading up to November 2, voters here and across the country heard a lot about the Tea Party — what various wins and losses would mean for the staying power of this relatively new political phenomenon, which candidates represented real Tea Party values, how much credit the Tea Partiers were to be given for conservative victories in Congress and in statewide races.
But a handful of pre-Election Day Tea Party events in Maine back up national analysis that suggests it's hard to say exactly who, or what, the Tea Party is. Sure, we know the brass tacks: the Tea Partiers universally call for smaller government, lower taxes, and strict adherence to (their interpretation of) the US Constitution. Beyond that, it's a free-for-all, with disparate objectives and changing motivations.
"Everyone who has written about the Tea Party this year will eventually be proven wrong," Harvard historian Jill Lepore said in The New Yorker this week. "This is a diffuse and dynamic movement."
TheWashington Post reached out to more than 1000 local Tea Party groups; the results of that canvass were published in late October, revealing less a movement than "a disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings that do surprisingly little to engage in the political process."
At the eleventh hour on Sunday, October 31, Chellie Pingree sent out an e-mail to her mailing list: "[P]lease give my campaign just a few hours to help turn out Democratic voters and stop the Tea Party from taking over here in Maine," it read, echoing a message that Democrats repeated nationwide over the last few months of the election season. ("We will not let our state be destroyed by the Tea Party," Mitchell said at a late-September rally with Bill Clinton. "There's too much at stake.")
But Mainers who identify as Tea Partiers contended that regardless of the results of this election, the Tea Party is here to stay. "What happens on November third" — the day after Election Day — "is most important," said Maine Tea Party press secretary Arthur Langley at a sparsely attended Monument Square press conference on October 28.
The event was called to point out that legitimate Tea Party groups don't associate with specific candidates — even if the candidate wants to associate with the Tea Party.
"Just because a particular candidate might say they're Tea Party doesn't make it so," said Pete "the Carpenter" Harring, a Standish resident, founder of the Maine Tea Party (formerly known as Maine ReFounders), and vice-chair of another Tea Party organization in the state — the Maine Patriots.
"Chellie Pingree has been claiming that a victory over Dean Scontras would be a victory over the Tea Party movement," Harring said. "I'd like to take this minute to let everybody know that the Tea Party as a whole does not endorse candidates at all. We try to remain neutral and educate the public as much as we possibly can."
The day after the Monument Square event, a fledgling group at the University of Southern Maine, the Campus Conservatives, held a small "Tea Party Rally" indoors with several current and future candidates (including Republican Scott D'Amboise, who will challenge Olympia Snowe in 2012 because she's too moderate). While they discussed the upcoming elections, the group's primary focus is on "raising money to put more American flags on campus," says president April O'Leary, a senior business major. Currently, there is only one flag on the Gorham campus, she says, "and quite frankly I find that appalling."