The majority leader in the US House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, was defeated by Tea Party candidate David Brat
The majority leader in the US House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, was defeated by Tea Party candidate David Brat

"The Tea Party is finished: smashed, at last, by the power and dollars of the Republican establishment," a New York Times columnist wrote.

"The Tea Party," the Washington Post blared in a succinct headline, "is dead."

Unfortunately for the nation's most prestigious political publications, those two articles ran just last month. But on Tuesday 6 June, an upstart Tea Party member soundly defeated one of the most powerful men in Washington, Majority Leader Eric Cantor. And other Tea Party candidates are lurking in the wings, poised to pull off their own David versus Goliath victories in coming primaries.

The Cantor upset wasn't all that shocking to insiders paying attention, but it stunned America's mainstream media, which had gone to great efforts to paint the five-year-old grassroots political movement as nothing more than old, angry - even racist - white men howling at the moon.

The mainstream media quickly found a new story line: "The result delivered a major jolt to the Republican Party...", while the New York Times took the view that reports of the Tea Party's death have been greatly exaggerated.

The movement, equal parts libertarianism, populism and conservatism with a pragmatic focus on America's financial bottom line, was born in February 2009, some say shortly after a TV financial reporter went on a rant and urged cheering traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to dump derivatives into the Chicago River.

Supporters cheer at a Tea Party Express rally.
Supporters cheer at a Tea Party Express rally where former Alaska Governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin spoke, on Boston Commons. REUTERS

Within a day, organizations and websites popped up. By month's end, 40 cities across America had held protests. The confused media soon followed, intent on dismissing the fomenting anger at Washington. But something happened: Summer.

Washington, dysfunctional at best through spring and fall and winter, all but shuts down in the dog days of June, July and especially August. With lawmakers back in their home district to work on "constituent outreach," newly converted Tea Partiers descended on town hall meetings with their elected representatives.

President Obama's health care overhaul - the multi-trillion-dollar policy that Democrats in Congress would soon shove down Americans' throats - brought them out in droves, and they went medieval on the flummoxed legislators. Day after day, the cable news programs, especially Fox, showed clips of virulent voters venting.

By the mid-term elections in November 2010, the New York Times identified 138 "Tea Party -supported" candidates for Congress. A third won office, NBC reported, taking five Senate seats and 40 House seats. To do so, many knocked off "establishment" Republicans with more money and more staff in primary battles.

But the movement faltered in 2012, losing 20% of the House seats it had gained. And because anyone could self-identify as a Tea Partier, some of the candidates turned out to be downright ditzy (like Todd Akin of Missouri, who said victims of what he called "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant).

Since then, few news outlets have spent much time covering the Tea Party. While anger at the government is still deep across the United States, the movement was deemed powerless and peripheral - until Tuesday.

David Brat, an economics professor at a small college in Virginia, ran a shoestring campaign with just $200,000, versus the powerful Majority Leader's bankroll of $5.4 million. Brat pushed his opposition to Obama's desire to grant amnesty for millions of illegal aliens in the country, a move supported by Cantor, at least until it was too late.

"The American people want to pay attention to serious ideas again," Brat said after his victory. "Our founding was built by people who were political philosophers, and we need to get back to that, away from this kind of cheap political rhetoric of right and left."

And therein lies the power of the Tea Party: A new breed of politician, underfunded, often inexperienced, is emerging to take on the Establishment. More, the loosely organized Tea Party, which has been less than successful in setting up a national presence, has gone local: Brat got almost no money from the large Tea Party groups, instead relying on local activists to push his message.

"The reason we won this campaign, there is just one reason, and that's because dollars do not vote - you do," he told cheering supporters in a post-election event.

That realisation, delivered by a Tea Party upstart who just knocked off the Majority Leader -the first time that has happened since the post was created in 1899 - will send a shiver down the spines of all the comfy incumbents facing re-election in November.