The two groups get much different media scrutiny.
By JOHN FUND
Elections this month have enhanced the political clout of two groups widely separated on the political spectrum. The tea party movement stands to play an outsize role in the fall elections now that outsider Rand Paul has swept Kentucky’s GOP Senate primary, while unions provided the muscle for Democrats to win a key special election in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Paul’s victory comes just after Utah Sen. Bob Bennett was denied a place on the primary ballot by a GOP state convention dominated by tea party activists. In Kentucky, Dr. Paul beat a GOP establishment candidate by calling for spending restraint and an end to “Bailout Nation” policies. A new Rasmussen poll shows him leading his Democratic opponent by 25 points. Tea party-backed candidates also won key House primaries in Pennsylvania and Arkansas this week.
Democrats, fearful of the grass-roots enthusiasm that candidates such as Dr. Paul are able to generate, immediately accused him of being an elitist for holding his victory party at a country club. They also slammed him for suggesting physicians like him deserve to earn “a comfortable living” while supporting an end to farm subsidies.
Liberal attacks on the tea party have flipped completely. Largely gone are dismissals that they are rednecks and rubes. After a New York Times survey found tea partiers are generally better educated and wealthier than the general public, they are now attacked as aloof and out of touch with the concerns of average voters.
The criticism will only mount because tea party activists represent an injection of fresh blood and enthusiasm that threatens Democratic incumbents. They certainly expand the GOP voting base: A March Gallup poll found that 43% were registered independents and 8% declared themselves Democrats.
The rise of the tea party makes Democrats even more dependent on organized labor. In this week’s Pennsylvania special election for the late Jack Murtha’s seat, the AFL-CIO alone sent out 80,000 mailers on behalf of Democrat Mark Critz, along with 100,000 robocalls.
In Arkansas, unions showed their clout by forcing Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a June runoff with labor-backed Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Unions decided to make an example of her after she opposed the “card check” bill that limits the use of secret ballots in union elections. Unions, especially the Service Employees International Union, spent more than $3 million against her.
In contrast to the tea party, there has been far too little scrutiny of the SEIU, whose membership of government and health-care workers is the fastest-growing of any union in the country. Andy Stern, the just retired head of the SEIU, was found to be the most frequent guest at the Obama White House last year, stopping by 22 times between January and September, more than all congressional leaders and cabinet members.
The SEIU’s close ties to the discredited group Acorn have largely been ignored. The same is true for the violence perpetrated by some of its members.
Last August in St. Louis, tea party supporter Kenneth Gladney was set upon by SEIU members during a town-hall meeting on health care. They were apparently angry that an African-American was supporting the tea party and hurled the “n” word at him while beating him to the point where he required hospitalization. St. Louis County officials waited until November to press assault charges against two SEIU members. Four others were charged with interfering with police during the incident. All six have pleaded not guilty.
This week, Nina Easton of Fortune magazine reported on an incident in her Washington, D.C., neighborhood in which 500 screaming, placard-waving SEIU members and allies surrounded the home of Greg Baer, deputy general counsel at Bank of America, to protest bank foreclosures.
“Intimidation was the whole point of this exercise, and it worked—even on the police,” reported Ms. Easton, a neighbor of Mr. Baer. The protestors finally left, only to descend on the nearby home of Peter Scher, a J.P. Morgan Chase executive. “It appears we’ve crossed into a new era: the politics of personal intimidation,” Ms. Easton concludes.
You can expect friction between tea party activists and union members in coming months. Last month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave a speech at Harvard in which he warned that anger at a sour economy was being transformed into dangerous “hatred” by the forces on the right.
At a time of heightened passions such as this election season, anyone who jumps proper political guardrails must be called on any excesses. As tea party members and unions vie for political supremacy this fall, it will be important for the media to scrutinize both and make sure their coverage is accurate and complete. So far the tea party—the new kids on the political block—have gotten far more attention than their union counterparts.
Mr. Fund is a columnist for WSJ.com.