On election night, Tea Party groups behaved exactly like any other political faction, despite the countless column inches written about how unique and antithetical to establishment they are.

They got drunk early in the night, CNN election tracker in the background (later Fox News) flanked by the “don’t tread on me” Gadsden flag. They cheered heartily when the GOP won, booed when they lost. They sang country music songs about how much they love America, not like those other guys.

And to prove they’re not a bunch of old fogies, a group of Dartmouth University basketball players calling themselves the Young Cons got on stage to rap about how much they love freedom and fiscal restraint.

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As high profile loses racked up, like non-witch Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, moments of doubt fused with alcohol to create ill-advised comments within earshot of the many journalists. “We did a sh-tty job in Pennsylvania,” said one organiser, Dana, 56, hours before it was clear the GOP had actually won sweeping victories there. It was her first time working a campaign.

Meanwhile, a man in a founding fathers costume walked around handing out DVDs of Tea Party: the Documentary Film. It’s no Michael Moore.

Although there are several organisations that claim to represent the movement, the two big umbrella names are the Tea Party Express and the Tea Party Patriots. Together they have thousands of chapters across all 50 states. They both endorsed the same list of ultra-connservative deficit-defying tax-hating candidates that typify Republicans at the start of their careers.

Bad blood began because the Express welcomed a spokesman seen by black America as racist; that spokesman, Mark Williams, was expelled from other Tea Party groups for attacks on the NAACP. Since then, there have been legal battles and outright poaching of candidates between the groups.

Last night that rancor was put aside as the groups, separately, claimed a national wind had come to Washington.

Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler told the faithful that Washington as we knew it was at an end. Big government would not operate under their control, and the $US13 trillion deficient can finally come down. Going back to the big spending ways wasn’t going to happen, he promised, because they have a 40-year plan.

That plan wasn’t available last night, nor could it be found on the group’s website. Meckler suggested it would tackle four areas: educational, judicial, political and cultural, infusing them with traditional values by supporting conservative teachers, judges, politicians and musicians.

The plan’s details should be made available soon, as the group’s other co-founder Jenny Beth Martin announced their first act will be to hold a freshman conference for the newly-elected lawmakers.

“If they uphold our values, we’ll give them the political backing to stand up to insiders in Washington,” she said. “If they don’t pay attention to that pressure, we’ll be back in two years to do it all over again and get people who will do it right.”

That my-way-or-the-highway approach has legislators scared. Dozens of their colleagues were challenged in primaries by Tea Party-backed candidates and although less than 40 eventually went on to be elected yesterday, for many incumbents in safe districts this is the first real challenge they’ve faced.

Meckler predicted many Democrats will see the signs and come on board with their agenda too. He’s extended an invitation to freshmen legislators of all parties.

While the GOP control of the House was firmly settled last night, the fractuous nature of the Tea Party movement was not. Wealthy backers have sustained the infrastructure to keep these groups alive for now, but like the financial backers of former GOP speaker Newt Gingrinch’s New Deal think tanks, without results that money could move elsewhere.

Without those financial backers, and Palin’s star power, it’s unclear if the movement could even last 40 years.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey