Fortunately, the actual voters behind the tea party movement of 2009 did some good before the vultures arrived.
Since that movement’s peak in 2010, the sentiment of those original voters — a pretty even split of Republicans, Democrats and independents — has been hijacked by every political circus-barker able to buy a domain name that includes such key words as "freedom," "liberty," "warrior," "conservative" or "tea party."
These same political operators have no problem making money from frustrated voters by challenging incumbent Republican officeholders with often untested, unsophisticated but deep-pocketed candidates — with mixed results.
People fed up with the government are still around, still energized, still anxious to give voice to their votes.
They just wearied of those trying to make a buck with a website, a campaign or a book reflecting an inflexible, often extreme ideology that shares little with the tea party’s original purpose.
And they don’t like to be politically bullied.
"I can speak from experience, that it is the case here in Pennsylvania," said Dwight Weidman, a Franklin County Republican. "Most of the folks who came out for the tea party when it began have dissociated themselves from these extreme elements."
Weidman points to the challengers of U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster in Western Pennsylvania who claim to be true conservatives or tea party patriots opposed to Shuster’s "establishment" record. He believes the more strident that Shuster’s challengers become and the more they associate with the extreme fringe, the worse they will do with rank-and-file Republicans and regular voters in November.
It is odd for Shuster’s conservative bona fides to be challenged, since he holds 100-percent ratings on nearly every conservative-cause scorecard.
The situation is not unique to Pennsylvania.
In last week’s Texas Republican primaries involving U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions,
"high-profile" tea party challengers garnered far more press credibility than they deserved — largely because they pushed the storyline of a deep divide among Republicans in very conservative Texas.
The results weren’t even close, and never were going to be.
Yet, in the lead-up to Sessions’ landslide victory over upstart challenger Katrina Pierson, you would have thought the 10-term congressman from Dallas was within a hair’s breadth of losing.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks PAC, one of those money-making "tea party" groups, was quoted as calling Pierson "one of the best activists in Texas who has been working overtime, trying to help Pete Sessions find his way back home." He confidently predicted she would win.
Ted Cruz, the freshman U.S. senator from Texas, called her an "utterly fearless, principled conservative" without once mentioning Sessions.
And reports in conservative media that Pierson was "surging" in the closing weeks of a "bitter battle" were wildly over-hyped, either because those reporting this "news" were fed bad information or made the fatal mistake of reporting what they wanted rather than what really was happening.
Sometimes movements end. In fact, every political movement in this country has ended or at least faded into one of the traditional political parties, from the Anti-Mason and Free Soil factions to the Wets, Drys, Progressives and so on.
Cornyn’s crushing victory of more than 50 percentage points over "tea party" challenger Rep. Steve Stockman, and Sessions’ two-to-one defeat of Pierson, are glimpses of how voters who just four years ago were part of the tea party movement have now settled back into their true conservative base — the Republican Party.
That doesn’t mean they won’t revolt again; Ross Perot’s impact on the American electorate didn’t occur all that long ago.
The dime-a-dozen outside groups that oversold their influence in Texas and in other states will continue to absorb great gobs of money in more races across the country, by accusing the "Washington establishment" and others of conspiring against them and provoking their losses.
They certainly will never admit that their own poor campaign skills or their untested, unvetted candidates might be the real problem.
This cycle will end only when voters realize that these are not groups filled with ideological purists willing to do battle because they are true believers. They’re just good-old-fashioned political swindlers.
And swindlers only close their doors when the cash stops coming in.
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]