While the energy of the anti-tax and anti-big government Tea Party movement may yet haunt Democrats in 2010, the first order of business appears to be remaking the Republican Party.
Whether it’s the loose confederation of Washington-oriented groups that have played an organizational role or the state-level activists who are channeling grass roots anger into action back home, Tea Party forces are confronting the Republican establishment by backing insurgent conservatives and generating their own candidates—even if it means taking on GOP incumbents.
“We will be a headache for anyone who believes the Constitution of the United States…isn’t to be protected,” said Dick Armey, chairman of the anti-tax and limited government advocacy group FreedomWorks, which helped plan and promote the Tea Parties, town hall protests and the September ‘Taxpayer March’ in Washington. “If you can’t take it seriously, we will look for places of other employment for you.”
“We’re not a partisan organization, and I think many Republicans are disappointed we are not,” added Armey, a former GOP congressman.
In Florida, where the national party has signaled its preference for centrist Gov. Charlie Crist in the GOP Senate primary, tea party activists are lining up behind former state House Speaker Marco Rubio in reaction to Crist’s public backing for President Barack Obama’s stimulus package.
“We were very disappointed with Gov. Charlie Crist when he supported the stimulus, the bailout, and he appeared publicly with President Obama,” said Everett Wilkinson, a South Florida-based organizer for Tea Party Patriots. “The opposition comes from Crist’s support for the largest spending plan ever and the environmental policies he’s pushing on the American people.”
Rubio has already made appearances at Florida tea parties, and protesters have been seen waving signs declaring, “Anybody but Charlie Crist.” He also has Armey’s endorsement, and Armey headlined a Dallas fundraiser for him several weeks ago.
Wilkinson said that the tax status of his Florida-based group limits what it can do to assist Rubio in the August 2010 primary. But he said the organization would launch an aggressive get-out-the-vote operation and issue a report card grading each candidate appearing on the ballot.
Tea Party activists are also lining up behind challengers to GOP establishment-backed Senate candidates in Colorado and Connecticut. In California, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina—like Crist another National Republican Senatorial Committee-favored Senate contender—is the target of Tea Party animus in her primary against conservative state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.
“My impression is that the support among tea partiers for DeVore is high,” said Mark Meckler, a California-based organizer for Tea Party Patriots. “I hear nothing but praise for the guy.”
Tea party organizers say their resistance to Republican Party-backed primary candidates has much to do with what they perceive as the GOP’s stubborn insistence on embracing candidates who don’t abide by a small government, anti-tax conservative philosophy.
“It’s an outgrowth of the frustration people have had with the Republican Party,” said Andrew Moylan, director of governmental affairs for the National Taxpayers Union, another group that has played a large role in organizing the tea party movement. “I think a lot of people have been angry at Republicans for betraying our trust.”
“I think the GOP establishment has ignored their constituents and the feelings of their constituents for years,” added Meckler.
It’s an unusual predicament for the Republican Party, since the conservative-oriented issues that animate Tea Party activists once seemed destined to make the movement a valuable auxiliary to the Republican Party.
While there’s little evidence of tea party activist support for Democratic candidates, the specific notion of electing a GOP majority hasn’t ranked high on their agenda either.
At the recent “Defending the American Dream Summit,” a conservative event held in Arlington, Va., a breakout session featuring Tea Party organizers saw panelists peppered with questions ranging from how to start up political action committees and 501(c)(3) organizations to whether it was necessary to hire lawyers.
“Nothing is going to change unless we can get politicians elected who can implement fiscally conservative policies,” said Teri Adams of the Philadelphia-based Independence Hall Tea Party Association, which will be launching a political arm, told those in attendance.
In a handful of states, tea party activists have zeroed in House Republican incumbents and have launched primary challenges in protest of their past support for the controversial Wall Street bank bailout.
One of those activists, Canyon Clowdus, an Army veteran who is taking on third term conservative Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), has blasted the incumbent for making “a horrible mistake” in voting for Troubled Asset Relief Program.
“He has put a financial burden on my four children that will amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars each,” Clowdus says of Conaway on his campaign website.
“I think it was a bad, bad political decision,” Armey said of the 34 Senate Republicans and 91 House Republicans who voted for the TARP bailout, “and if you talk to grassroots activists, it has become a political test for them.”
Moylan agreed that TARP is “really kind of the flash point that started all of this.”
“People are paying attention and are willing to hold these people accountable,” he said.
For some, supporting insurgent campaigns or waging primary bids just isn’t a strong enough signal to send to a Republican Party that has abandoned core conservative policies.
Erick Erickson, founder and editor of the influential conservative blog RedState, has urged Tea Party activists to “put down the protest signs” and stage takeovers of local Republican parties.
“Grassroots activists need to start infiltrating the party,” said Erickson. “The only way to start getting [the establishment] back is to start pounding them with every fist we have.”