This month brings a special election to New York's 26th congressional district to fill the vacancy created by Rep. Chris Lee's embarrassed resignation over an internet flirting scandal. Lee won the regular election last November by a landslide, but the special election is proving more competitive. While many reports attribute the close polling so far to Democratic fearmongering over Rep. Ryan's long-term budget proposals, another important local factor is the independent candidacy of Jack Davis, a local businessman, on a "Tea Party" line. This is a Tea Party of Davis's own creation; so long as he gets the signatures required to earn a ballot line, he can give himself almost any party label he pleases. His appropriation of the TP mantle has caused controversy and is clearly hurting Republican chances. Davis had the support of 23% of respondents in one poll reported last month.
Speaker Boehner came to the district recently to shore up support for the regular Republian candidate, Jane Corwin, and presumably to verify her as the "real" conservative candidate in the race. The Conservative Party already makes that claim for her. Meanwhile, Davis has come under attack by Republicans, conservatives, and TPs who consider him an impostor. Their protests raise decisive questions about the identity of the Tea Party movement.
Davis has received a Tea Party endorsement, but the Tea Party Coalition of Western New York that gave him its nod is apparently a rump group following a bitter schism last year. He participated along with Corwin in a "vetting" event for TPs that left many attendees skeptical toward both candidates. Some critics complain that Davis has hijacked or usurped the movement name without consulting the rank and file who made it a force in American politics. But much of the complaining focuses on the fact that Davis, who is running as a "Buy American," anti-Bailout style populist, was until recently a Democrat -- in fact, a past Democratic candidate for office. The attitude of many critics is revealing; their opinion seems to be that no one who was ever a Democrat, or especially a Democratic politician, should have anything to do with Tea Parties. But it was not my impression when Tea Parties were first assembling in 2009, that endorsement of the Republican platform was a prerequisite for participation. Dissatisfaction with both major parties was implicit in the metaphorical call to arms. The Tea Parties were assumed to be essentially populist in nature: hostile both to an oppressive or ineffectual political class and to plutocrats unjustly shielded from the consequences of their shipwreck of the American economy. But while some Davis supporters credit their candidate with "learning," opponents assume that Democrats can't "learn" and that no erstwhile Democrat can be trusted to play a leading role in a populist movement.
Given the circumstances of the special election and the paranoid tendencies of American political consciousness, it's understandable if many locals assume Davis to be some sort of operative whose main purpose is to throw the election to the Democratic candidate. Both major parties have long histories of exploiting divisions in each other's ranks that way. It's less understandable, intellectually if not historically, if voters assume that there's no room in a political campaign, or political discourse in general, for a third voice (or a fourth; a Green candidate is also running) beside the monolithic Democratic "liberals" and Republican "conservatives." The worst part of it is that so many Tea Partiers seem not to want to be the third or fourth voice. At most, they want to snatch the sacred megaphone of "conservatism" away from establishment Republicans in order to shout the same slogans more loudly. By comparison, Jack Davis may represent what the Tea Parties might have been if they had actually been capable of thinking outside the bipolarchy box.