What Do Election Results Mean for the Tea Party Movement?
Former House Speaker John Thrasher swept to an easy victory over arch-conservative rival Dan Quiggle in this week's special election for State Senate District 8.
The Republican primary result is expected to return Thrasher to the Legislature, but leaves questions about how much of a factor the grassroots conservatives and tea party organizations will play in upcoming Florida campaigns. Quiggle heavily courted these groups with his populist conservative campaign.
Another former House Speaker, Marco Rubio, is openly courting this swath of potential voters in his GOP primary challenge to Gov. Charlie Crist. But Rubio faces some of the same challenges Quiggle did in getting his supporters to the polls.
“Every race has its own quirks but, generally, activists don’t usually win elections,” said Kevin Wagner, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University. “It’s candidates who can appeal to the mass of voters in the middle – and that’s not where the tea party voters are.”
Florida’s Senate District 8 is considered among the most conservative districts in the state, stretching from the Georgia border to International Speedway Boulevard in Daytona Beach. The area’s First Coast Tea Party organization also is one of the state’s largest and most organized of the dozens of such groups that have emerged in recent months across Florida and the nation.
Tuesday’s Republican primary drew 22 percent turnout across the five-county District 8, topping earlier projections. But the well-financed Thrasher, whose $600,000 in fundraising tripled the amount raised by Quiggle, was able to draw 39 percent of the vote to the second-place finisher’s 27 percent.
Quiggle’s campaign said he and volunteers knocked on the doors of 60,000 households in the district seeking support. The candidate also addressed a major rally held by the First Coast Tea Party in April, but later drew a rebuke from the organization for posting a video on his campaign website suggesting that he had the group's endorsement. The video was later changed.
“We don’t endorse candidates,” said Billie Tucker, a leader of the First Coast Tea Party, which sent more than 1,000 people to last weekend’s rally in Washington, D.C. “But we had many people supporting Dan Quiggle, others for John Thrasher, Stan Jordan and Art Graham.”
Jordan and Graham finished behind Quiggle, with Thrasher now advancing to an Oct. 6 general election in which his will be the only name on the ballot.
“We basically told our members that it’s your personal responsibility to learn about the candidates. We want candidates who are conservative, committed to limited government and moral responsibility,” said Tucker, a marketing consultant.
She said many within the organization remain focused on issues emanating from Washington, D.C., and that may have detracted from interest in the local Senate race. Similarly, many of those drawn to the group through the social networking power of the tea party movement may not be registered Republicans, and would have been blocked from participating in Tuesday’s closed primary.
Thrasher, whose name is now known throughout the district, seemed not badly hurt by a heavy barrage of television ads attacking him as a government-insider who was punished for two ethics violations stemming from his lobbying practice.
The ads were financed by political committees allied with trial lawyers, who oppose Thrasher for having helped engineer strict civil justice restrictions when he led the House from 1998-2000.
“We plan to get involved now in what’s happening in Tallahassee,” Tucker said. “We are not going to take our eye off the ball of what’s happening in this state.”
But Wagner said the tea party movement still has a long way to go to affect state elections – especially one as sweeping as next year’s Crist-Rubio contest.
“Rubio is going to need more than tea parties,” he said. “Political passion won’t win over money and strategy in a statewide race.”