by Mark Moore
What should a TEA Party be? What is its function? Some think they should not exist at all. Some think it should be a cheerleading section for the Republican Party. Others feel it should serve to help the right kind of candidates win Republican primaries. And then there is the Garland County TEA Party. What is happening there is very interesting, and in my opinion should serve as both an inspiration and a model for other groups throughout the state, and beyond.
Elements of the Garland County Tea Party helped former Hot Springs police Captain Mike McCormack get on the ballot for Garland County Sheriff- as an Independent. Not only that, but the sole person who filed for the state legislature as an independent this year is State Senate Candidate George Pritchett, a former Garland County Justice of the Peace. Pritchett was able to utilize the network and expertise developed from getting McCormack on the ballot to get the signatures needed to launch his own candidacy. I spoke with Reggie Cowan, a board member of the Garland County Tea Party about their approach and how they see their own role in the public debate.
Most small towns in the state have city councilmen and mayors who file as independents. For other offices, Arkansas has had independent candidates before, but not winning candidates. That changed two years ago when Robert Akin was elected Drew County Judge as an Independent. Akin tapped into a growing discontent with both parties. Cowan says that McCormack considered all of his options, and decided that Sheriff is not a policy-driven office. It’s an office where honesty and impartiality should be paramount. He decided he preferred to run with a non-partisan label even though he was recruited to jump into the GOP primary.
Although there is a Democrat in the race, and four are vying for the spot on the Republican side, Cowan thinks McCormack can get votes from supporters of both parties as well as those who don’t identify with a party. There have been independent candidates before, but they have rarely been good candidates. Maybe its not the independent label that is the loser in Arkansas politics, but rather the sort of person who usually ran under that label in the past. They were lone wolves, not backed by local grassroots groups. Cowan sees McCormack as a good candidate.
Can McCormack win a three way race? Akin did in Drew County. Remember, in County races they have run-off elections if no one gets over 50% of the vote. That is going to leave people free to vote their conscience. They won’t have to vote for one major party candidate or the other out of fear of “splitting the vote.” They can vote for who they want in the first round and if they don’t make it to the run off then vote for the least-worst alternative there. That’s all the more reason to have run-offs for all elections, preferably instant run-offs, but that’s another story.
Most people see the TEA Party as hyper-partisan, but here is a case where they are helping someone run for what should be a non-partisan office in a non-partisan manner. And the person they recruited is hardly the most right-wing they could find, rather, he’s one of the best qualified they could find.
That brings us to the other race, State Senate. Unlike the Sheriff’s race, there is an incumbent. Sen. Bill Sample is a Republican, but one who loves big government. Sample checked in at #8 on the Arkansas Watch list of “Ten Worst Legislators in the State of Arkansas.” Garland County has tilted Republican, but much of that comes from the crony-capitalist wing of the GOP. That’s how Sample got in to start with. There is no Democrat on the ballot to challenge Sample.
Cowan and other members of the Garland County Tea Party recruited former Garland County Justice of the Peace George Pritchett to run against Sample as an Independent. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that they recruited Pritchett and he considered all his options. He choose to run as an Independent, and they backed him regardless of his choice. The $7,500 filing fee to run for state senate as a Republican was definitely a factor. Why rush to get all that money when it could just go to your opponent’s campaign should you lose what is likely to be a slanted party primary campaign? Add to it that Sample already has an opponent in the GOP Primary, Jerry Neal.
It was a smaller area TEA Party that courted Neal, but I like the result. Crony-capitalist Republican Sample gets challenged in the primary and in the general election. Men like that may raise a lot of money from special interests by voting for big government, but if activists would just follow this recipe then they would not get to keep it. Hit them in the primary with a primary challenger, then hit them again in the general with a grass-roots backed independent.
So we see that in both cases the candidates choose to run under an independent label not out of necessity, but out choice. I think we are going to see more of that, as a reflection of the increasing disgust many Americans feel towards both DC-based political clubs. The TEA Parties can serve to back candidates who run for offices which are not policy-centric and thus ought to be non-partisan, like Sheriff, and they can find candidates to supplement when the two-party system breaks down and fails to provide good candidates- as is now the norm.
Those are the TEA Parties I see surviving, and thriving. The ones on track for extinction are those who are redundant cheerleaders for one half of a two-party system which has obviously failed America.