Tea Party Celebrates in Washington

Tea Party activists at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 2, 2010. Ron Lamkey / Getty Images

Walking into the Tea Party Patriots' election-night party in the Valley Forge Conference Room at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, a whoop could be heard emanating from a couple of women watching the giant screens tuned to Fox News. What were they cheering? A victory in a key Senate race? No, it was an exit poll result flashing across the bottom of the screen: 62 percent of voters in West Virginia said they support repealing health-care reform. On a night of very big victories for Tea Party activists, they were determined to revel in even the smaller ones. The Tea Party candidate in West Virginia's hard-fought Senate race, Republican John Raese, did not end up winning, which Keli Carender, a staffer for the Tea Party Patriots, admitted at the end of the evening was one of the few disappointments of the night. But as she was quick to point out, Democratic Senator-elect Joe Manchin ran on partial repeal of health-care reform, so she interprets the results in West Virginia as an affirmation of Tea Party views.

Affirmation was a recurrent theme in the evening, culminating in an emotional address by the group's national coordinator, Jenny Beth Martin. She responded to scattered shouts thanking her by saying, "No, thank you! You guys are the power of the movement," to the crowd of about 100 Tea Party activists from around the country. "It's a really good night. We deserve it." Just as Martin started down memory lane, returning to the dark days of the group's failed efforts to prevent the passage of health-care reform, Carender interrupted with a shout to look at the screen. A moment of confused silence fell on the room as all eyes turned to the televisions. Fox was calling control of the House of Representatives for the Republicans. The crowd errupted: "USA! USA!"

Theatrical patriotism was another theme of the programming. Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American" played more than once—the second time it was put on as a "special song" for Martin and her husband by a colleague. Julianne Thompson, a middle-age blonde who volunteers as state coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots in Georgia, sang the national anthem. Other songs that have more liberal messages, or at least liberal songwriters, were played as well: "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen, "I Won't Back Down" by Tom Petty, and "Ain't That America" by John Mellencamp.

In addition to the recorded and live music, one very special Tea Party musician was brought onstage. Tea Party Patriots organizer Mark Meckler made a sudden shift when he began to ruminate on the long-range future of the Tea Party movement. "We need to educate the next generation of patriots and conservatives," he said. "How do we make conservatism cool? We've made it cool, but we need music that speaks to young people." It was all an excuse to introduce Josh Riddle, a lanky Dartmouth junior who plays on the basketball team, works for campus conservative journal Dartmouth Review, and is one half of rap duo The Young Cons. In 2009, the Young Cons cut their first track, which went viral on YouTube and got them on Fox. It's hard up in Hanover for a conservative rapper: the school leans liberal, and so does the rap game, according to Riddle. But he draws inspiration from Christian rappers and keeps writing rhymes about the wisdom of his three heroes: Ronald Reagan, Jesus, and Ayn Rand. (Riddle was shocked and seemingly a little dismayed to learn that Rand was an ethnically Jewish atheist.) Riddle offered a few conservative bromides—"You've never gotten a job from a poor person," "You can't uplift the poor by tearing down the rich"—and introduced a Young Cons track called "Master of My Destiny" as a "Tea Party anthem."

Only one attendee sported the movement's trademark colonial garb. Veteran George Washington impersonator James Renwick Manship of—he swears this is true—Mt. Vernon, Va., was working the room and creating the odd image of George Washington eating buffalo wings. Manship has been dressing as Washington and attending conservative rallies such as the anti-abortion-rights March for Life for a decade, but he became active in the Tea Party when it got started in Feburary of last year. His friend and sidekick, who dresses as Captain America and declined to give his real name, was the only other costumed guest. Captain America, despite his optimistic outfit, represented the angry, more paranoid side of Tea Party politics, asserting that "they [liberals] want to take away the flag, Christianity, and the Constitution."

Most people in the room were in a sunnier frame of mind, though. Everett Wilkinson, state coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots for Florida, had flown up to celebrate with his friends from the movement. He was ecstatic over big wins in the Senate race by Marco Rubio, and the trouncing of outspoken Democratic Florida Rep. Alan Grayson. His candidates are Republicans but, he insisted, "It's not a Republican victory, it's a Tea Party victory. We're just lending the Republicans our vote." Wilkinson is already looking ahead to February, when the federal debt ceiling must be raised, and he plans to demand that it not be allowed to happen without spending cuts. Wilkinson offered a warning to Republicans: if they don't "confront Wall Street" and impose fiscal discipline, he says, "they'll be fired." If Wilkinson's policy platform sounds unlikely, he is hardly an outlier. Attendees all wanted a balanced budget but they didn't offer specific spending cuts to achieve it, beyond the small-bore conservative hobbyhorses like funding for National Public Radio. But these are not policy wonks: they are volunteers giving 30 hours a week to unpaid organizing, usually for the first time in their lives. And what a way to begin a life in politics.

It was such a good night for Tea Party candidates that some of their more expected wins, like John Boozman handily defeating Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, elicited only polite applause. And except for a scattered sigh, Tea Party favorite Carl Paladino's loss in the New York gubernatorial race didn't put much of a damper on their mood.

Some Tea Partiers were poring over the results in their key House races, like Tea Party hero Allen West's congressional challenge in Florida. Others were so ready to let loose after 20 months of hard work that they didn't even pay attention to key Republican victories. Prior to the Hyatt event, a smaller group ("General Washington" generously estimated their size at 60) had gone to the West Lawn of the Capitol to wave a Gadsden flag, the yellow flag with a snake and the phrase "Don't Tread on Me," which has become a Tea Party symbol, to show that the people have taken back their Congress. They had come to send a message—even though interviews with attendees didn't clarify what exactly the message was—and they already knew it had been sent.