Successful elsewhere, ‘tea party’ fails to find traction in California


At the election night party of “tea party” favorite Chuck DeVore in Tustin, Carole Mullner and her daughter Stephanie Perez were among the first to arrive. Outfitted in red T-shirts branding them as “insurgents” for DeVore, they enjoyed a rare moment of calm after months of campaigning for the Republican Senate candidate.

Mullner, an artist and member of the West Covina Tea Partiers, set aside her work in January to hunt down volunteers and raise money as DeVore’s “ambassador” for the cities along the 210 Freeway. Perez, a 31-year-old member of the Chino Hills Tea Party, served in that same role in the Inland Empire.

As they waited for results, both women were candid about their distrust of the night’s eventual Republican winners, Senate nominee Carly Fiorina and gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman.

They wanted to know: How did Fiorina get all those endorsements from anti-abortion groups, without any record to speak of? Could she recite passages of the Constitution, as DeVore can? Did she really need to keep her hair that short or was she eyeing a “sympathy vote” after her fight with breast cancer? And with all that baggage from her time as chief executive at Hewlett-Packard, why wasn’t it obvious to other voters that Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer would “rip her up”?

“Nobody will work for her,” Mullner said when asked whether her fellow tea partiers would fall in line behind Fiorina. She predicted that many would also watch the governor’s race from the sidelines. Earlier that day, Mullner said, she had voted for conservative Larry Naritelli for governor to send a signal to Whitman and Steve Poizner that her vote was for “none of the above.”

Coming into this year’s primaries, the tea party movement was certainly the loudest exemplar of a restive electorate across the country. And it was successful in places, helping to elect Senate candidate Scott Brown in Massachusetts and nominate Rand Paul in Kentucky. But its efforts in California fell short.

Their biggest race was the Senate contest, which underscored the challenges that a nebulous movement faces in trying to organize foot soldiers in a state as large and expensive as California.

One of Tuesday’s hard lessons was that all the volunteer efforts for DeVore “didn’t matter nearly as much as having a beautiful commercial on TV,” said Dawn Wildman, the California state coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, who holds weekly strategy sessions with other organizers.

The Senate race against Boxer also never caught fire with tea partiers nationally because it lacked the symbolism of Sharron Angle’s bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada or of the earlier race involving Brown, who replaced Democrat Edward Kennedy and was viewed as a swing vote against President Obama’s healthcare legislation.

“We operate in a world of scarce resources — time, money, volunteers,” said Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns at FreedomWorks, a group that has worked closely with tea party groups and helped train their organizers. Compared with states like Nevada, he said, in California “it’s just hard to make a dent.”

Tea party organizers often tout the diversity of views within California’s more than 170 groups, and Fiorina and Whitman certainly have their tea party fans.

But it is difficult to imagine the decentralized network of activists, who took such pride in their scrappy efforts in the Paul and Brown races, mobilizing to help the polished campaigns of a billionaire and a multimillionaire who won, in part, by dipping into their personal fortunes.

Many tea partiers in California “see Whitman, and especially Fiorina, as their loss,” Wildman said. Whitman’s spending, she said, was a particular turnoff: “There are a significant amount of tea party people who think that she bought the seat.”

In those marquee races, “For us it looks like ‘Hey, the money got you through. It probably will the next time,’ ” Wildman said. “We have people out there who don’t have the money bags who need our help.”

Some groups, she said, are shifting focus to more local races, including that of state Assembly candidate Nathan Mintz, a former tea party organizer from the South Bay, and Nick Popaditch, who is running for Congress in the 51st District in southeastern California.

It is also unclear how much Whitman and Fiorina will publicly seek out tea party help. Although they must motivate their Republican base — and 38% of GOP voters told the Field Poll this month that they identified strongly with the tea party — the candidates’ most pressing imperative now is to appeal to independent voters who can help Republicans surmount the Democratic advantage in registration.

Those identifying with the tea party also seem to have signaled Tuesday that they value winning in November over movement fealty: DeVore, after all, spoke to more than 60 tea party groups yet drew just 19% of the vote, compared with 56% for Fiorina.

“The candidates who were trying to get their support — both Poizner and DeVore — were very unsuccessful,” said Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo. “Their impact on the election, at the state level anyway, was very minor.”

If Fiorina and Whitman failed to woo the tea partiers with the same fervor as their rivals, they did reach out to some of those voters toward the end of the primary.

Fiorina spoke at four events, including a rally organized by the Pleasanton Tea Party. Those efforts paired with her conservatism and Sarah Palin’s endorsement, several organizers said this week, may help tea partiers warm to her now that she is the nominee. “She was very willing to get in with the people and still is reaching out to us now, and people appreciate that,” said Pleasanton Tea Party President Bridget Melson.

Melson said she had tried since February to get Whitman, the former EBay chief executive, to speak to the group, and finally sent an e-mail warning campaign aides not to “underestimate the power of the Tea Party.” The Whitman campaign offered Melson a one-on-one meeting the Friday before the election, and she came away impressed.

John Guerrero, the leader of the Fremont Tea Party Patriots, said members of his group, intend to “keep an eye” on both Whitman and Fiorina to make sure they “stay conservative.” The candidates “were pressured” into taking conservative stands during the primary, he said, “so we have to make sure the pressure stays there.”

Linda Dorr, an organizer of the Laguna Beach Tea Party Patriots, predicted that the doubts about both candidates would fade quickly as tea partiers weigh the alternatives — Democratic nominees Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer.

“You could have a Bugs Bunny or a Mickey Mouse. We’re not going to vote for Brown or Boxer,” Dorr said. “We’ll definitely back them.”