Florida candidate becomes first officeholder with Tea Party affiliation, but analysts say media exaggerates third party

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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Polk County Commissioner Randy Wilkinson may be the first official officeholder from the Tea Party.

Wilkinson, running for Florida’s 12th District seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Adam Putnam, switched his party affiliation from Republican to Florida Tea Party last week. He is a county commissioner in Florida’s Polk County.

“We’re excited,” said Fred O’Neal, founder of the Florida Tea Party. “Our first officeholder. We’re excited.”

Of course, there are other self-identified Tea Party candidates across the country running as Republicans or independents, but Wilkinson appears to be the first elected official running on a Tea Party ticket affiliation.

Wilkinson will face the Republican and Democrat candidates for the seat in November. According to a local Florida paper, Wilkinson was elected to the Polk County Commission as a Republican. But on campaign documents filed to run for Congress, he said he is now a member of the Florida Tea Party and is not registered with any other party.

“Randy has always been kind of an outsider with the Republican establishment, and so he contacted us quite a while ago, and contacted us again last week and we worked out the details,” O’Neal said of Wilkinson’s switch from the GOP to the Tea Party.

Wilkinson did not return phone calls and e-mails asking for comment.

O’Neal said his political party is running a total of three congressional candidates, including Peg Dunmire who is mounting a third-party challenge to fiery liberal Democrat Rep. Alan Grayson and his Republican challenger for Florida’s 8th Congressional District. Another candidate, Roly Arrojo, who O’Neal said he had never heard of, also qualified under the Florida Tea Party affiliation to run for Miami’s 25th congressional seat. O’Neal said he is still trying to learn information about Arrojo. The Daily Caller was unable to reach Arrojo Monday afternoon.

O’Neal said the political party’s goal has been to run candidates in races without incumbent Republicans. “We’re not trying to knock off conservative, Republicans. That’s not our agenda.”

The Florida third party is also running a number of state House and Senate and county commission candidates, he said.

There is some third-party activity in other states, such as Nevada, where Scott Ashjian is running on the Tea Party ticket for Sen. Harry Reid’s seat. There is also a formed Tea Party organization in Connecticut, O’Neal said.

But Wilkinson’s third-party candidacy is not necessarily indicative of a brewing third-party effort, according to several election analysts. Every election season usually yields independent candidates, and the media appears to exaggerate the possibility that a majority of Tea Party activists will consolidate into a third party.

“I think many people believe that 2010 will be a great year for independents and third-party candidates because of the supposed anti-establishment mood,” said Issac Wood, House editor for UVA’s politics guru Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “In reality, the Tea Party movement is almost entirely made up of Republicans and supports almost exclusively Republicans.”

“The U.S. simply does not have a history of supporting third-party candidates and there is not yet any evidence to show a widespread change in that regard this year,” Wood added.

He did acknowledge that more explicit Tea Party candidates will likely file to run as independents as some Republican candidates in states without “sore loser” laws could “follow Joe Lieberman’s lead and run as an independent after losing their primary.”

The media is to blame, said Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, who said he’s annoyed over the confusion of the media who he said call him everyday asking for a list of Tea Party candidates.

A comprehensive list, he said, is impossible to dispense because there’s not a real way to define exactly what defines a Tea Party candidate: There are self-identified Tea Partiers running as independents. There are third-party candidates running on the Tea Party ticket. There are Republicans who identify as Tea Partiers and then there are Republicans, who don’t claim to be Tea Partiers, but who speak at rallies.

“Where do you draw the line? I can’t,” Wasserman said.

Wood also suggested the media is “responsible for this myth when they take political rhetoric at face value instead of examining the motivations and backgrounds of the speakers.”

“Voters almost always come home to roost with their party by Election Day regardless of what they say several months before the election,” Wood said.

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