Washington, DC—The mood at the office of FreedomWorks—a cavern of white walls and working stations across the street from Union Station—is optimistic but nervous rather than ebullient. Preppy young white staffers and their friends mill around sipping expensive beers, switching between chatting about politics and refreshing web pages with the latest update from Florida. Cheers occasionally erupt, but it is misleading: a show for live TV broadcasts from the conference room, not reactions to actual results.
FreedomWorks is a fiscally conservative advocacy organization that rode the Tea Party wave to prominence in 2010. Its chairman is former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, but it is actually run day to day by President and CEO Matt Kibbe.
Although they have an affiliated Super PAC, they do not raise massive sums from eccentric billionaires to buy television advertisements. Rather, they deploy their staffers to states and districts where their favored candidates a handful of the most conservative House and Senate candidates are running.
“What we do in all these states is get out the vote on the ground,” says Kibbe. “It’s a different approach for a Super PAC: we ask activists who live in the district what they need, from phone banking to yard signs.”
In some ways, election night is anticlimactic for Tea Party activists. Their real fight is in the Republican primaries, and they have already won every battle in it. For example, they played a key role in helping Indiana Tea Partiers knock Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) off this spring. Unfortunately, the man they replaced him with, state treasurer Richard Mourdock, blew his lead over Representative Joe Donnelly (D-IN), by saying that a pregnancy resulting from rape is “something God intended.”
Right after the Indiana primary I met with some Indiana Tea Party activists in the FreedomWorks office. I asked how they would feel if Mourdock lost the general election. They said there was no way that would happen. Now, it looks quite likely.
But FreedomWorks is in no mood to concede a possible miscalculation. Kibbe says he is still confident Mourdock will win. And if he loses? Well, that of course will still prove the appeal of fiscal conservatism. “The only lesson is pretty clear: candidates who stay focused on fiscal issues and stay from abortion do better when the economy is bad,” says Kibbe. “Mourdock ran in the primary on economic issues and won by twenty points.”
Everyone here is undoubtedly rooting for Romney tonight, but the real passion is for conservative firebrands they have endorsed and worked for in the Senate, such as Jeff Flake in Arizona and Tom Smith in Ohio. Many of those candidates could lose tonight, although Kibbe says Flake regained his lead after FreedomWorks started to spend heavily on his race.
The power of right-wing activists to whip Republicans into line comes as much from their perceived strength as actual events. And so Kibbe has to be ready to spin the results whatever happens. If Romney wins, says Kibbe, it will not prove that his pivot back to the center worked but rather that he won “because of swing voters that are focused on reining in government.” And if he loses, Kibbe notes, it is not because he embraced Paul Ryan’s plans to slash entitlement spending. At least, not according to polls of what voters say are their biggest issues.
And the day after the election won’t be a vacation day for issue activists in Washington, especially the ones who are here to cut government spending. During the lame-duck Congress, FreedomWorks will pressure Republicans not to go wobbly in negotiations over the debt ceiling increase and avoiding the fiscal cliff. In a refreshing display of the intellectual integrity so lacking among actual Republicans in elected office, Kibbe says he thinks Congress should allow the sequestration cuts to take effect rather than repealing the military portion as Romney and Ryan propose. “Especially,” he notes, “since they voted for it.”
Kibbe is from the libertarian fringe of the conservative establishment. He has dramatic sideburns, square hipster glasses and not much affection for Mitt Romney. The average partygoer in his office tonight is a more typical young Republican in the dweeb/bro mold. A bunch of indistinguishable young men in with short hair that spikes in front are shouting to each other in a language indecipherable to the uninitiated. “We’re down by 2,500!” “We gotta win that one!” “We don’t have any votes yet.” “South Dakota is zero percent reporting.” “We’re coming back in Ohio, it’s 55-45.” “Ohio’s gonna close up.” “If he had better movies, Timothy Dalton would have been the best Bond.”
An affable intern for Senator John Thune (R-SD) jokes that hopefully the only New Yorkers with power were “the super-rich, the Upper East Siders,” and so maybe even New York will go Republican. It’s not likely. If Mitt Romney loses, there will be some long faces here tonight. But tomorrow they should all cheer up. In the battle for the soul of the Republican Party, they have already won.