The ‘Teen Party’ can change Congress like the Tea Party

Election outcomes, particularly midterm congressional elections, are decided by two factors: mechanics and mystery. The mechanics are easily assessed and driven by data, such as the number of canvassers deployed and amount of money raised, voter contacts made, and polling, phone banks and television points reserved.

But it’s the mystery that can be more potent. That intangible energy in the environment, the charge in the air. It makes everything mechanical and methodical almost irrelevant. It’s like an electromagnetic pulse that can render sophisticated technology useless.

{mosads}We saw that energy gather in Saturday’s “March For Our Lives” in Washington and in 800 sibling marches against gun violence held in 390 of 435 congressional districts, according to organizers at supportive national organizations. And it very well may work at changing the majority in Congress and changing the laws.

The last time we saw it was in 2010, when the Tea Party ignited from conditions at the time: a deep and painful recession, home foreclosures, a radically changing economy and job insecurity. CNBC commentator Rick Santelli famously ranted about the government “promoting bad behavior” and referenced a “Chicago Tea Party.”

The energy transmitted almost instantly, echoing and amplifying across kitchen tables, in diners and coffee shops, in workplaces, and at rallies, protests and boisterous congressional town halls. The Tea Party disabled the precise engineering devised by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to protect its House majority. It swept over its canvassers, drowned out its paid advertising, claimed 63 Democratic seats and toppled its majority (aided and abetted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which opened the floodgates of money for Republicans).

Now, we see it again, only in hard reverse. Not a Tea Party, but a Teen Party. Not in the diatribe of pundits, but in 11-year-old Naomi Wadler’s captivation of her audience at a rally on Saturday. In the thousands of voters drawn to rallies by the energy of children too young to vote. In the hand-drawn signs and the spontaneous chants of “vote them out” that I heard at a rally in Huntington, Long Island, that attracted more than 1,000 people. I used to represent that community in Congress, and getting 100 people to show up for a political event was almost impossible.

Something powerful is in the air when a discussion of “midterms” at the kitchen table isn’t about school exams but about elections. Of course, the energy isn’t spent efficiently across the map. In blue districts, it won’t make a difference between a member of Congress who is servile to the gun lobby and one who isn’t. In unwinnable bright red districts, it may depress turnout, but in the absence of a criminal indictment or the incumbent representative being caught in bed with a copy of President Obama’s autobiography, it won’t change the outcome.

But in the 48 or so districts that are competitive, in suburbs and exurbs, that mysterious energy tosses the toss-up districts. If the Teen Party, like the Tea Party, ramps up town hall meetings, channels their energy and masses in districts that matter, vulnerable Republicans will find themselves in a perilous place — on the wrong side of energy, and maybe of history as well.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April.

Tags Congress Democrats Election Guns Republicans Steve Israel Tea party

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