For the past year, a passionate group of Americans have rallied together under the banner of the “tea party,” altering the direction of the nation’s political discourse in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
The Associated Press reviewed tea party operations in almost every state, interviewing dozens of local organizers as well as Democratic and Republican strategists to produce a portrait of the movement.
Five key things learned in the states:
1. THERE ISN’T ONE ACTUAL “TEA PARTY,” AND THERE MIGHT NEVER BE
Fred O’Neal founded the Tea Party in Florida, a state-recognized political party that has a candidate on the 2010 ballot to challenge a Democratic member of the U.S. House. He now faces a lawsuit filed by fellow tea party activists.
“There’s been a steady campaign to try to drive a wedge between the Tea Party and the other people in the tea party movement,” O’Neal said. “They’re trying to basically discredit what we’re doing.”
The reason? Those opposed to the idea of turning the tea party into an actual Tea Party vividly recall the 1992 election, when a third-party candidate syphoned enough votes from President George H.W. Bush to allow Bill Clinton to win the White House.
“The one thing that people talk about over and over again is Ross Perot,” said Michael Caputo, a political consultant who is helping movement leaders challenge O’Neal’s use of the Tea Party name. “Ross Perot is the only reason that Bill Clinton became president.”
2. DEMOCRATS THEY ARE NOT, AND TEA PARTY SUPPORTERS ARE HARDLY HAPPY WITH REPUBLICAN INCUMBENTS
There aren’t many states a deeper shade of red than Oklahoma. But in a state where Barack Obama failed to win a single county in his 2008 presidential race, tea party-aligned candidates are preparing for the state’s July primary election and races against several establishment Republicans they feel aren’t conservative enough.
Among the challengers is state Sen. Randy Brogdon, who is running against U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin for the GOP nomination for governor. Fallin easily won her congressional seat in 2006 after 12 years as lieutenant governor, but is given no ground by Brogdon after voting in favor of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program used to rescue the nation’s teetering banks.
“It’s a bad year for incumbents, it’s a bad year for moderates and it’s a bad year for people who voted for the bailouts,” Brogdon said.
3. THE TEA PARTY DOESN’T HAVE A LEADER – AND THAT’S JUST FINE
Chris Tawney is an active member of the Flint Hills Tea Party in Kansas. She and others in the group send out e-mails, participate in rallies and town hall meetings, and head to Topeka often to monitor the Legislature.
But the group has no leaders – on purpose.
“There is nobody to tell me to go there and do that,” said Tawney, a nurse from Manhattan, Kan. “All of us have our own commitments and our own lives.”
Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt thinks the loose organization has helped the movement grow quickly in Kansas. But the candidate for U.S. Senate acknowledges with a smile the structure can make it tough for his campaign. “The only inconvenient part of it is, who do I contact?” he said. “I want to consult with them.”
4. TEA PARTY SUPPORTERS HAVE NO DEFINING ISSUE
The original tea party protest came in Boston, a rallying cry against taxation without representation. Their modern-day descendants in Massachusetts, credited for helping Republican Scott Brown stage an upset to win the U.S. Senate seat held for nearly a half-century by Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, aren’t nearly as unified around a single idea.
“I don’t think you could say that all tea party members feel the same about anything,” said Barbara Klain, a former technical writer and educator who co-founded the Greater Lowell Tea Party.
“We have pro-choice and pro-life. We have people concerned about (President Barack Obama’s) birth certificate and people who are concerned about their money. We come for all different reasons, but we agree the government is out of control and needs to be reined in.”
That’s not to say, however, that they aren’t united.
“It’s not a Democratic or a Republican organization. It’s not a political entity,” said Sandi Martinez, who founded the Greater Lowell group with Klain. “It’s a group of people, concerned about their country, and they’re from every background.”
5. THE TEA PARTY IS AMPLIFYING VOTER ANGER BUT ISN’T A UNIVERSAL PRESENCE
In arguably the most politically active state in the nation, Iowans trying to get the tea party movement off the ground are struggling to find many takers.
Local tea partiers have staged only one large rally, and that was a year ago. Democratic Party officials say their candidates – the prime target of the movement’s conservative activists – don’t sense angry tea partiers deploying.
Iowa is, of course, the place where political organizers for the major parties spend months, even years, reaching out to individual voters to ensure they’ll show up at caucus gatherings on an icy January night and help launch candidates on their journey to the White House.
“Iowa is a relatively small state,” said former Iowa Republican Chairman Richard Schwarm. “If you want to make a difference in Iowa, you have to be involved in that kind of politics.”
And that might not end up leaving much room for the tea party.