A small contingent of right-wing elites was gathered for an intimate dinner party at the Great Falls, Va., home of ForAmerica Chairman Brent Bozell when returns first started trickling in from Rep. Eric Cantor's primary race. They weren't there to watch election coverage, but Tea Party Patriots President Jenny Beth Martin couldn't help but check her phone for the early numbers. With the first two precincts reporting, she told the group, Cantor was trailing his obscure opponent, an economics professor named David Brat.
"Cantor should give his concession speech now!" Bozell joked.
Everyone laughed, but it wasn't long before their phones started buzzing with the startling news: The House majority leader was about to lose his primary to a grassroots insurgent — upending the common wisdom in Washington that the tea party was dead, and serving notice to the old guard that the grassroots wasn't done with the Republican civil war.
The dinner guests — who included Andy Roth of the Club for Growth, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Mike Needham of Heritage Action, David Bossie of Citizens United, and prominent conservative fundraiser Richard Norman — began hurriedly making calls to activists on the ground, and scanning their phones for updates. Somebody turned on Fox News and then, when The O'Reilly Factor wasn't providing live coverage, they changed the channel to CNN.
"Can you think of a greater political upset in your life? I can't think of one," Bozell said over the phone, as his guests chattered excitedly in the background. "This is stunning. This is the conservative movement on fire."
Bozell described the group's mood as "ebullient," and it's easy to see why. For months, conservative activists have watched as their attempts to oust establishment Republicans with a 2010-style insurrection fall flat. The dominant media narrative throughout the midterms has centered on the taming of the tea party, with the donor class and party leaders in Washington declaring victory over the grassroots and the activist organizations that support them.
But with Cantor's defeat, the leaders at Bozell's dinner table had proof that the movement was still very much alive — a fact that warranted some gloating.
"Is the establishment going to get questions for the next week and a half asking whether they're dead?" Martin asked sarcastically. "The fact of the matter is freedom is alive."
As they dined on vegetable lasagna, the guests plotted their next moves — from beating Thad Cochran in the Mississippi Senate runoff, to marshaling an army of activists that would make sure the GOP nominated a true conservative for president in 2016.
"This is good for anyone who has a connection with the grassroots," Bozell said. "It's good for [Ted] Cruz, it's good for Rand Paul."
Bozell added, though, that Paul would do well to heed the lessons of the night and resist the temptation to drift to the left on immigration policy, a key issue in Cantor's race. Paul is scheduled to take part in a teleconference Wednesday with Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who supports immigration reform.
"The sound you just heard was the death knell of the immigration reform within the establishment of the Republican Party. It's kryptonite," Bozell said, by way of warning to Paul. "Look, there's a constructive way to have a discussion about immigration, but when you send signals that you're willing to go along with amnesty, the public is adamant in their response and they will throw you out of office."
He added, "It's time for Grover Norquist and the Chamber of Commerce to think of Plan B, because their agenda is dead."
(Reached for his response, Norquist called it a stretch to cast Cantor's loss as a national referendum on immigration reform, and cited the conservative coalition that supports the policy: "If the modern Reagan Republican Party is not men and women who create businesses, and run farms, and are in communities of faith, what is it?")
As the evening wore on, the tone of the dinner conversation shifted from jubilant to vindicated.
"Once the shock wore off, it was, 'Damn right we won. Damn right the movement is still alive,'" Bozell said.
As his guests basked in victory, the host briefly retreated from the celebration with his public relations consultant, Greg Mueller, to craft a statement that they would soon blast out to reporters. The result was thoroughly triumphant: "Eric Cantor's loss tonight is an apocalyptic moment for the GOP establishment. The grassroots is in revolt and marching."
When he returned to the dinner, Bozell was struck by the weight of the moment.
"If you looked around that table and you looked at the organizations represented, it was virtually every major conservative group in America," he said. "There was real muscle in that room, and a real sense that something historic happened tonight."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.