BOSTON — Tea party activists are again supporting Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown this election, even though many aren’t thrilled with some of his votes over the past two years.
They say any disappointment with Brown is overshadowed by two bigger factors – the threat posed by Brown’s Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren and the desire to help Republicans seize control of the Senate.
“The bottom line is that he’s a Republican in the Senate,” said Ted Tripp of the Merrimack Valley Tea Party. “Republicans have to take control of the Senate so we can stop the liberal agenda and roll back the liberal policies that have been put in place over the past few years.”
When Brown staged his surprise win in the 2010 special election for the seat left vacant by the death of longtime U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, some of his earliest and most ardent backers were tea party activists.
Two years later not all tea party supporters are still enamored of Brown, but say they’re backing him as he seeks his first full six-year term.
It’s hard to remember just how big an upset Brown’s election was – not just for Brown, but for the tea party movement itself.
As it became clear that Democratic candidate Martha Coakley wasn’t cruising to an easy win, tea party activists jumped at what initially seemed like the longest of political longshots – electing a little-known Republican to Kennedy’s longtime Senate seat in liberal Massachusetts.
The Tea Party Express, one of the tea party movement’s main political action committees, began pouring money into Brown’s campaign, attracting the attention of other activists – some of whom trekked to Massachusetts from other states to lend support.
The Tea Party Express would end up spending nearly $348,000 in independent expenditures to help Brown, according to the Federal Election Commission. The money went for ads, Internet newsletters and emails.
“It was an important race for the tea party movement, because it turned the movement from a protest movement to a political movement,” said Sal Russo, a veteran GOP political strategist and founder of the California-based Tea Party Express.
“By winning in Massachusetts, it proved that you could win anywhere,” he added.
Brown’s win helped strengthen the movement, which went on to help elect dozens of lawmakers to Congress in the midterm elections, handing control of the U.S. House to Republicans.
But if activists thought they were getting a conservative firebrand in Brown, they were disappointed.
Not only did he side with Democrats in supporting a jobs bill pushed by President Obama, he went on to break with conservatives on other key issues.
Brown was one of just three Republicans who voted for the Dodd-Frank law that sought to toughen financial-industry regulations. He also voted for the START treaty to further limit U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.
But on one make-or-break issue for tea party activists, Brown remained firm – his opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Brown vowed to be the 41st vote against the measure, which passed despite his opposition.
Christine Morabito, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, said she supported Brown, but never realistically expected him to be an arch conservative.
“Scott Brown is not as ideologically conservative as the tea party. I’m not sure he ever was,” she said. “Maybe a lot of us wanted him to be more conservative than he was.”
But Morabito and others say there’s one reason above all that they plan to support Brown – defeating Warren, a Harvard Law School professor.
“She couldn’t be more opposite ideologically from the tea party,” Morabito said. “I never thought that they could find a worse candidate to run against Scott Brown than Martha Coakley, but they have.”
Ken Mandile, co-founder of the Worcester Tea Party, agreed.
Mandile said that while there’s “no uniform opinion on Scott Brown” among tea party supporters, there’s a single view of Warren.
“The alternative is completely unacceptable,” Mandile said. “There are some tea partiers who don’t support Brown under any circumstance, but they see Elizabeth Warren as a disaster.”
As he works to reach out to the independent and Democratic voters, Brown has downplayed the boost he got from tea party supporters in the 2010 election.
Brown’s campaign is also quick to shift attention to the Occupy movement, which captured the nation’s attention a year ago when groups of young people channeled the nation’s economic frustrations and took to the streets chanting about corporate greed and inequality.
“Scott Brown is an independent voice and while he welcomes support from all people, he is not beholden to any group,” Brown campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre said in a statement.
“Elizabeth Warren is different. She claims to be the founder of the radical Occupy protest movement, however when no one is watching, Warren is serving as a hired gun for huge corporations against the middle class,” she added.
Warren – who calls Brown’s “hired gun” claims false and misleading – seemed unfazed by the tea party’s opposition to her candidacy, suggesting their support for Brown shows he’s more conservative than he’s let on.
She pointed to a recent debate when Brown – asked to name a “model” Supreme Court justice – first named conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, followed quickly by Chief Justice John Roberts, associate justice Anthony Kennedy and associate justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“When Scott Brown said Scalia was his model Supreme Court justice, I think he strengthened his support among the tea partiers,” Warren said.