Oregon's May primary will be the first statewide election with a full ballot of candidates since the tea party movement's emergence on the national level.
And so I met last week with Geoffrey Ludt, Oregon's state tax day tea party coordinator, to ask what the movement can achieve in its first elections across Oregon.
We could have endlessly disagreed about Ludt's views (to sum up, he believes America's slide to totalitarianism is a continuum from the advent of the Federal Reserve and the income tax a century ago to President Obama today. I don't. We did agree that Obama is a U.S. citizen).
Instead, we spoke about Oregon politics, which he self-deprecatingly concedes has a much steeper learning curve for him and many other tea party adherents than national politics. He says when people are less plugged in and "not so excited when something happens at the state level" it presents a harder organizational challenge.
To date, the tea party movement has helped gather signatures to put Measures 66 and 67 on the January ballot and organized demonstrations last year in Pioneer Courthouse Square. It's now organizing a couple dozen tax day protests statewide this April 15.
But even with its links to established national groups such as Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity, it's unclear whether a left-tilting state like Oregon provides much election opportunity for the tea party and related groups like the Glenn Beck-inspired 912 movement.
Ludt, 37, of West Linn, says Oregon's tea party movement so far is focused primarily on congressional races and has sent a questionnaire to Oregon congressional candidates. Among the 10 questions are what candidates will"do to protect our borders and eliminate illegal immigration" and, "Will you vote for or support any bills that are not derived from a specific power granted in the U.S. Constitution?"
Ludt points to U.S. Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) as somebody the tea party could topple. Wu's 1st Congressional District runs from west Portland through Washington County to the coast. And Republican candidates in the primary are affiliated with the tea party and vying for support from members.
Taking on a well-funded incumbent like Wu, even when incumbents are on their heels nationally, may seem a fool's errand. But Ludt disagrees. He cites the January upset in the U.S. Senate race by Republican Scott Brown in liberal Massachusetts.
There's no tea party candidate in Oregon's GOP gubernatorial primary. But Ludt also claims success on the state and local level because a few tea party-affiliated candidates also are running in races farther down the ballot, such as Jeffery Reynolds in Metro District 1. In 2008, the Republicans had no candidates in 17 of Oregon's 60 House races. This year, that's the case for only one seat.
"A lot of excitement and energy is on the tea party side of things," says Greg Leo, communications director for the Oregon Republican Party. "The folks who are organizing as conservatives have a lot of Web skills with Facebook and social media." State legislative candidates with tea party connections in GOP legislative primaries include Scappoose small-business owner Ed DeCoste in House District 31 and Oak Grove stay-at-home mom Deborah Gerritzen in House District 40, the district of House Speaker Dave Hunt (D-Gladstone). They don't have long political résumés.
"I decided to jump in at the last minute, and I'm still getting my feet wet," Gerritzen says.
Despite GOP primary runs by tea party people, Ludt says Republicans shouldn't assume lock-step support.
"People should be involved [in the GOP] if they want to be involved," says Ludt, a registered Republican who's registered before as a Democrat. "But I think the tea party movement needs to remain separate from both parties. We need to be almost like an auditor."
Between his day accounting job and his night UPS-warehouse safety job, he works about 50 hours a week. Ludt, a married father of four children, ascribes his newfound passion for the tea party to the federal bailouts at the end of the Bush administration in 2008.
He found time to attend Oregon Republicans' annual Dorchester Conference this month (see "Rumbling Elephants," WW, March 10, 2010). He wasn't overwhelmed.
"I expected Republicans would be more conservative. I didn't realize there would be such a clique-y atmosphere. It's more akin to rooting for a football team," Ludt says. "I'm totally ideologically driven, so I bristle at it. It freaks me out. I see that as part of the problem. I don't really trust the party apparatus."
Oregon Tea Party's Facebook page has about 800 fans, including GOP state Reps. Sal Esquivel and Matt Wingard, as well as Republican congressional hopefuls Delia Lopez in Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer's 3rd District and Jaynee Germond in Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio's 4th Congressional District.