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3 Years Later, What’s Become Of The Tea Party?

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Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell looks on during one of Mitt Romney's stump speeches. (credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell looks on during one of Mitt Romney’s stump speeches. (credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Three years ago he was merely a face in a very large crowd, standing outside the Alamo on Tax Day as Glenn Beck spoke of drawing a line in the sand.

A businessman, husband, father of five and grandfather of 14, Bruce Baillio bought a miniature “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and watched, a little sheepishly and mostly silently, as a movement was born before his eyes. Like most of America, he didn’t know then what the tea party was.

Today, he is part of what it is morphing into.

Twice a month at the Jim’s Restaurant not far from his home, Baillio unloads tea party T-shirts and baseball caps, sets an American flag on a Formica table and leads his neighborhood tea party group — one of 23 in the San Antonio area — in a discussion. They talk about the Obama administration’s policies regarding insurance for birth control, about how to become a delegate to the conventions that help determine the Texas GOP’s leaders and platform.

He does this every first and third Tuesday of the month, even though he knows some are already writing the tea party’s obituary. In this, the first presidential campaign since the dawn of the movement, no single contender has been christened the “tea party candidate.” And what was once the boisterous focus of American politics is now the butt of Internet insult: “Ding Dong — the Tea Party is dead!” wrote one blogger.

“Are we dead?” Baillio asked several of his members on a recent Tuesday. About 15 had gathered on this night, including retired military men, grandmothers, a few real estate brokers, a city utility worker, a high school Spanish teacher and a photographer.

Their responses were steeped in the kind of confidence that comes with clout, and the San Antonio Tea Party has gained some of that.

“We’re persistent and keep driving the issues home,” said one member.

“We communicate with each other and … when it comes time to vote, we’ll definitely pull the ballot lever,” replied another.

And there was this, from an ex-Air Force man wearing a “Vote. Declare Yourself” shirt: “We’re becoming active in things that we didn’t even think about before this all began … and we are finding that our difference is very, very tall. All they’re doing when they call us dead is creating something called silent resentment.”

Dead the tea party is not. Changed? Perhaps. But still very much alive, in the back room of a Jim’s Restaurant in San Antonio and many other places across the land.

___

It screamed onto the scene with a memorable rant by a reporter on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Then came the giant Tax Day rallies. The jeers at town hall meetings about a still fledging national health care proposal. Protests in Washington, D.C., with Beck, and bus tours featuring Sarah Palin.

It all culminated with the tide-turning elections of 2010, when the tea party revolution sent new conservatives to governors’ mansions, statehouses and, of course, Congress — helping to fuel the largest turnover in the U.S. House in more than 70 years.

But where has the tea party been since? It’s a common question, especially as many saw the GOP presidential campaign unfolding without any meaningful tea party influence. Sure, there was a Tea Party Express rally last fall in New Hampshire, featuring most of the Republican presidential hopefuls. And, later, that same group co-sponsored a debate with CNN.

Still, so-called “umbrella” organizations such as the Tea Party Express, the Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks and others haven’t, to date, put their names behind any one candidate. And only in recent weeks have tea party darlings such as U.S. senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah finally weighed in — endorsing likely nominee Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whom some see as un-tea-party-like as one could be, in part because of his state’s own health care reform law.

Some local tea party groups (in Massachusetts, for example) have divided over divergent priorities — whether to make conservative economic principles or conservative social issues paramount. Others, such as the Tennessee Tea Party, have disbanded altogether.

In researching her recent book, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Harvard professor Theda Skocpol found that about 1,000 local tea party groups formed in 2009-2010. Today, she estimates there are about 600. A declining number, yes, but still what Skocpol, an expert on civic engagement, calls “a very good survival rate.”

“They’re not dressing up and going to demonstrations in the street. They’re meeting. They’re poring over the legislative records of these Republicans that they’ve elected. They’re contacting their representatives, and they’re keeping the pressure on. They’re following the debates, and they’re going and they’re voting.

“They’re determined,” she says, “and they haven’t gone away.”

To weigh the continuing success or influence of the tea party by inside-the-Beltway measures — endorsements, numbers of chapters and “constituents,” dollars or even wins or losses at the polls — is to miss the point and ignore the power of the movement today, says Skocpol. That stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the tea party was and is.

It was never an “it,” a party with a capital “P” in the sense of a third political party, though at one point some tea party insiders may have toyed with the idea and outsiders treated it almost as such. (Consider CNN’s decision to televise the tea party response to President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address.)

Rather, it is an ideology and a style of politics — one that “has been in the business of pulling the Republican Party away from the possibility of compromising with Democrats and further toward the hard right,” says Skocpol. “And they’ve been very successful. … They’ve taken over the Republican Party, lock, stock and barrel.”

Elizabeth Price Foley, a constitutional law professor and author of “The Tea Party: Three Principles,” calls the tea party “the new Republican base.” ”That causes a lot of people who want to dismiss the tea party to characterize them as puppets of some great wealthy conservative puppet masters,” she says. “If anything, the tea party is the one who is moving the mountain. The mountain being the Republican Party.”

This was on full display during last summer’s congressional debt debate, when House tea partyers forced Republican Speaker John Boehner to postpone a vote on legislation to raise the debt ceiling and hastily revise it to add a balanced-budget provision, pushing the government to the brink of default. It was just one example of the strength exerted by newly elected tea party Republicans advocating a tough no-compromise mantra. Earlier, they drove House Republican leadership to rewrite a budget bill to find more spending cuts.

Today, tea party activists are still hard at work promoting a conservative ideology at all levels of government, in part by targeting longtime GOP incumbents deemed not conservative enough. Take this year’s congressional races. Though no one expects the type of gains seen in 2010, national tea party-related groups are backing candidates in vital races as part of an effort to not only keep GOP control of the House but possibly gain control of the Senate and move Congress more to the right.

Already, in what some have dubbed the first upset of 2012, an incumbent congresswoman in Ohio has fallen to a tea party-backed challenger in that state’s primary. Still to come are the two high-profile primaries featuring tea party targets Orrin Hatch of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana, the two most senior Republican members of the Senate.

FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C.-based group that provides both money and training for tea party activists and candidates, has spent some $650,000 opposing Hatch, whom the group calls “the consummate Washington insider” with a record that “is decidedly opposed to the goals of the tea party” — in part because he voted for the Wall Street bailout in 2008.

The 78-year-old Hatch, first elected in 1976, faces several challengers at an April 21 GOP state convention. It was at that meeting two years ago that tea partyers notched their first congressional victory, defeating three-term Republican Sen. Bob Bennett.

Lugar, who like Hatch is seeking a seventh term, may face a bigger threat in his May 8 primary. State Treasurer Richard Mourdock has been endorsed by a coalition of Indiana tea party groups called Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate but also by national organizations including FreedomWorks, the anti-tax Club for Growth and the Tea Party Express, some of which have spent several hundred thousands of dollars supporting Lugar’s opponent.

There is evidence of the tea party’s influence, too, in the campaign of Romney, even if many harbor deep suspicions that he is a Massachusetts moderate. He has begun promoting some tea party-friendly positions, including a plan to partially privatize Medicare. And his stump speeches are sprinkled with lines that play to the tea party crowd, whether he’s denouncing “career politicians” or imparting the virtues of the Constitution and the founding fathers or accusing President Barack Obama of wanting to “fundamentally transform” America and turn it into a “European-style entitlement society” with “burdensome regulations” that expand the role of government.

“To be successful in politics you have to be connected to the zeitgeist of the times. The tenor of the times today … is opposition to the increasing size, cost and intrusiveness of the federal government,” says Sal Russo, a veteran GOP political strategist who runs the Tea Party Express political action committee. “All of the candidates have successfully addressed the primary tea party issue in a way that tea party people would like. I hear people say (the GOP primary was) a titanic struggle between the tea party and the non-tea partyers. That’s silly.”

Perhaps nowhere is the persistent power of the tea party more at work today than at the local and state level, where many grassroots activists have decided to shift the focus of their efforts. More tea party-backed candidates are running for county and state Republican leadership positions, with the aim of having a bigger say in the party’s agenda and direction.

It’s happened in South Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Minnesota and Ohio, where the head of the state GOP resigned this month after a much-publicized battle between him and the governor, as well as tea party groups that aligned against him.

Another notable example is New Hampshire, where tea party organizer and former gubernatorial candidate Jack Kimball was elected GOP chairman in January 2011 by conservatives. Soon, GOP presidential hopefuls were reaching out to Kimball in that first-in-the-nation primary state. But Kimball stepped down eight months later amid infighting with the state’s top Republican elected leaders, who questioned his ability to manage the organization and raise funds.

There have been other signs of backlash against the tea party, both within the GOP establishment and among the public at large. In New Hampshire, where Republicans in 2010 won supermajorities in both the state House and Senate, a recent poll of GOP primary voters found most saying they no longer support the tea party movement. That echoes a November Pew Research Center poll, which found waning support nationwide for the tea party but also in those congressional districts now represented by members of the House Tea Party Caucus.

In Indiana, a video popped up on YouTube urging voters to reject tea party candidates to the Madison County Republican Party in that state’s upcoming May primary, telling viewers: “If you care about the real Republican Party, you must act now before it’s too late,” The Herald Bulletin newspaper reported.

In Florida, the state GOP chair removed the local head of the Volusia County Republican Executive Committee after a battle between him and more conservative Republicans. A tea party activist is now in charge, and that prompted one GOP political consultant to write a scathing online column urging Republicans to “resist the temptations and blind allegiance to … any group that would be so arrogant as to want to change the party by disrupting it and destroying it.”

Still, tea party observers such as Foley and Skocpol say the movement may be here to stay. The tea party, says Foley, is “in the fabric of every community. You may not see it, because they’re not holding signs. But they’re there.”

And, she adds, “They’re in it for the long haul.”

___

To better grasp the evolution of the movement, simply follow the journeys of its people.

In March 2010, Hildy Angius, a retired public relations specialist, drove from her condo in Bullhead City, Ariz., to the huge tea party rally in Searchlight, Nev. — what some called the Woodstock of conservatism. Then, she was president of her local Republican women’s club. Now, she serves as vice chair of the Mohave County Republican Party and is running for county supervisor.

“I think we realized that just getting together … and yelling and screaming wasn’t going to do anything,” says the 52-year-old Angius. “The best thing is to get involved at the local level in the party. Move the local party to the right … and then the local party will move the state and then the state moves the national.

“The tea party was an idea that people like me, who came from nowhere, could get involved … and you can really make a difference.”

In San Antonio, 60-year-old Bruce Baillio now feels the same.

After the Tax Day rally of 2009, he went home, set his tea party flag aside and went on with life, keeping up with politics but not getting involved. Then he read about a Houston tea party group’s call for poll watchers to prevent what they considered possible election fraud. He was trained as an election judge and, urged on by a fellow church member who now serves as head of the San Antonio Tea Party, began attending his neighborhood tea party meetings. Soon enough, he was leading the group.

Today, he and other tea party members have the clout to meet privately with elected officials and press them to hold the line on city projects, including a proposal to spend millions to build new housing in the downtown core.

“We are showing up at city council meetings on a regular basis, showing up at county commission meetings on a regular basis. We have organized neighborhood groups to attend town hall meetings,” says San Antonio Tea Party president George Rodriguez. “It is at those meetings that we bring up the issues of: How are you using our money?”

Political candidates are also coming to them, seeking votes and volunteers.

That Tuesday night in San Antonio, three candidates showed up to court Baillio’s members, including Matt Beebe, a conservative newcomer taking on the speaker of the Texas House in the state’s May 29 primary. Beebe credited tea party groups like Baillio’s for paving the way for more conservative candidates to seek office.

“The tea party … has provided a backdrop where the opportunity to beat an entrenched incumbent exists,” he says. “They’re putting their money where their mouth is. They’re putting their time and effort where their mouth is, and so I feel like they are absolutely significant.”

This, Baillio says, is “the new normal” — his group of citizen activists who may not dress up in revolutionary garb, make signs and converge on large rallies, but instead work behind the scenes to influence their democracy in myriad ways.

“We have definitely changed the dialogue. People now have to consider the tea party,” he says. “Are we a paper tiger? I think that’s our biggest fear. And the answer to that question is in our own hands. We get to decide. It’s about who else can we educate. Who else can we wake up?”

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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