On Feb. 27, 2009, the tea party held its first protests in more than 30 cities across the United States. Five years later, the grass-roots group is throwing a big bash in D.C. to celebrate its birthday, and we're wondering much of the same things about tea party members that we were prior to the 2010 midterms, when they proved they weren't kidding about getting comfortable in the home Republicans begrudgingly made for them.
Can they win primaries in the 2014 midterms? How long can this movement last? Can the Republican Party continue to survive with such a narrow base? Maybe we'll know by the time the tea party's 10th anniversary rolls around.
Here are some of the most memorable moments for the tea party since 2009.
1. The movement throws its first party
When the tea party movement held its first big national protest against the stimulus package in early 2009, people didn't know quite what to make of it. The Associated Press file from St. Louis was only a few sentences:
Call it the St. Louis tea party. Hundreds of opponents of President Barack Obama's stimulus plan gathered near the Gateway Arch on Friday and tossed tea into the Mississippi River. The gathering was organized by St. Louis-area conservatives. They took tea from the bags and tossed the loose leaves into the river but not the paper. An organizer says the goal is to send a message to Congress to repeal the stimulus plan.
In Fort Worth, Tex., signs read "Obama bin' Lyin" and "No more bailouts." The Americans for Prosperity director who helped organize Oklahoma's protest told the local paper there: "We want to send one message to Congress: We don't want a bailout. There's other ways to stimulate the economy, and this isn't it."
At Nashville's, "some attendees wore tea bags, while one person dressed in Native American garb to resemble the original Boston protesters," The Tennessean newspaper reported on its Web site. The crowd gathered despite heavy rains that turned the plaza into a large puddle. "'It's very appropriate to have a body of water present for a tea party,' said state Republican Party Chairwoman Robin Smith. In Cedar Rapids, The Department of Natural Resources would not allow the group to dump real tea, so brownish river water sufficed. Pugh got it from near the roller dam south of downtown, and filled buckets from a plastic tank on a trailer behind his pickup. 'I went down to the river with a couple buckets,' he said. The group dumped the water from the platform on the north side of the bridge, where a miniature Statue of Liberty stands. They played Jimi Hendrix's version of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' over a loudspeaker as they spilled the water over the side of the bridge."
The New York Post's verdict? "The 'Taxpayer Tea Party' movement may not go anywhere - but it sure gives overtaxed, tapped-out folks a place to let off a little steam. At the same time, that 1773 tea party energized more than a few people, so who knows where this one might go?" The Christian Science Monitor's account of they day's events stated, "Critics call the protests a predictably partisan, ill-informed and unhelpful development in the midst of a deep-sink US recession. But the largely grassroots show of force hints at a sharpening thorn for Democrats and a potential powder keg that could threaten to blow ahead of the 2010 congressional elections." Which about sums up what happened in 2010, when the tea party had a grand electoral debut and the Republicans gained 63 seats in the House.
2. Arlen Specter faces the wrath of his conservative constituents
In August of 2009, tea partyers swamped town halls across the country, voicing their anger at President Obama's health-care plan. They caught America's attention with dire warnings of "death panels" and government takeovers just as public support for health-care reform began to plummet. During a week of health-care reform town halls in Pennsylvania, Craig Anthony Miller told Sen. Arlen Specter: “I got news for you. You and your cronies in the government do this kind of stuff all the time. One day, God is going to stand before you and he’s going to judge you!” Miller left, and Specter responded with a laugh line (as he often did), “We’ve just had a demonstration of democracy.”
A few months earlier, Specter had changed parties, becoming a Democrat, because of rage he saw back home in meetings like this. "As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party," he said in his announcement. "In the course of the last several months ... I have traveled the state and surveyed the sentiments of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and public opinion polls, observed other public opinion polls and have found that the prospects for winning a Republican primary are bleak."
Specter ended up losing the Democratic primary, so in a roundabout way the tea party managed to not only get rid of a RINO (Republican in Name Only), they helped get a Democrat out of office, too.
Tea partyer Rand Paul also won a primary against an establishment Republican, and eventually a Kentucky Senate seat. In his victory speech, he said, “I have a message, a message from the tea party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words. We have come to take our government back.”
3. Michele Bachmann delivers the first tea party rebuttal after the State of the Union
In 2011, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann gave the first tea party response following the annual State of the Union speech. Her speech, which was nearly overshadowed by coverage of whether she was looking into the right camera, focused on the Affordable Care Act and the movement's criticisms of Obama -- issues that dominate the tea party's agenda to this day. The tea party continues to offer rebuttals after every State of the Union, but the attention they draw has dropped considerably.
4. Marco Rubio says "no thanks" to the tea party caucus
Rand Paul founded the Senate Tea Party Caucus when he arrived in D.C. in 2011, but he could only get three of the 47 Republicans serving in the upper chamber -- Sen. Mike Lee, Sen. Jim DeMint and Sen. Jerry Moran -- to sign up. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was one of the more notable people to shy away from the caucus. He went on Trey Radel's radio show and said, "specifically about the Tea Party Caucus, the concern that I’ve expressed is that what I think gives the tea party its strength and its legitimacy in the American political process is that it’s a grass-roots movement of everyday Americans.... My fear has always been that if you start creating these little clubs or organizations in Washington run by politicians, the movement starts to lose its energy. Basically, the media will jump on that and start paying attention to that instead of the grass-roots movement, which is really what has given the tea party its voice.... I don’t want us to do anything that kind of changes its grass-roots nature."
The president of one tea party group said at the time, "In the final analysis, his joining is secondary to the important issues we sent him up there to solve." However, many tea party activists asked about the House Tea Party Caucus founded by Michele Bachmann in 2010 felt much as Rubio did. The national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots said, “There was skepticism that this was possibly a move to speak for the tea party or to take advantage of the tea party."
There are now around 15 senators affiliated with the Tea Party Caucus, and there were 48 members of the House's incarnation, as of January 2013. In March 2013, Dave Weigel called the Tea Party Caucus, which hadn't met in months, dead.
5. Sarah Palin goes rogue, becomes de facto leader
Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is the keynote speaker at the first tea party convention, sponsored by Tea Party Nation, in February 2010. Her appearance cements her status as the undeclared leader of the sometimes unruly movement, following on the wild success of her 31-stop, 25-day book tour for her autobiography, "Going Rogue," which espoused many tea party principles. Among other things, Palin headlined four "Liberty at the Ballot Box" bus tours to raise money for tea party candidates.
6. Scott Brown pulls a tea party-fueled upset
In an upset victory largely credited to tea party money and support, Republican Scott Brown wins Senate seat long held by Democratic titan Ted Kennedy in perhaps the bluest of the blue states in the country, Massachusetts. The Economist takes note of the victory as a defining moment for "America’s most vibrant political force."
7. Ted Cruz wins a Senate seat
Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had loads of money and name recognition, but apparently that wasn't enough to best the soon-to-be tea party darling-in-chief, who won the Republican Senate primary -- and then Texas Senate seat -- in 2012. The Fix called the race the biggest upset of the year, and Cruz has returned the favor by making Republicans in office upset ever since, while keeping the conservative base smiling.
His strident style, which helped shutdown the government once and threatened to do so again, has made fissures in the tea party movement more clear; establishment Republicans would much rather cozy up to Rand Paul types than Cruz types if forced.
8. The tea party has some bad luck with candidates
Although there is no doubt that the tea party has fielded some successful candidates over the past five years, their batting average isn't perfect. To wit, Christine O'Donnell. She became the eighth tea party-supported candidate to beat a Republican incumbent in a 2010 primary, and headed to the general election for Joe Biden's old senate seat. She had endorsements from the National Rifle Association, Rush Limbaugh, Sen. Jim DeMint, and a handful of other prominent Republicans and organizations. And then she released this ad (among other things) and ended up losing by 17 percentage points.
In 2012, the tea party didn't claim Rep. Todd Akin, who won the Republican primary to face off against incumbent Claire McCaskill for Missouri's Senate seat, but his platform mainly toed the tea party line. And when he made a comment about "legitimate rape," the tea party distanced itself even more, saying “One of the lessons we learned in 2010 is that we need candidates who are not only conservative, but are capable of putting together a strong campaign against liberal opponents. Akin’s frequent ‘Bidenisms’ are distracting from the important issues at hand." Several tea party candidates from this election season have already stuck a foot or two in their mouth; time will tell if that affects their chances in the midterms, or only mucks up the Republicans' chances once the general election starts.
9. Tea party candidates make memorable campaign ads.
Although the other moments numbered on this list had more political impact, perhaps the most memorable moments of their five years in politics were their campaign ads. Herman Cain may not have won the Republican presidential nomination, but we are happy to name him president of attack ads -- as long as he names Mark Block his vice president.
Let's look at that again.
There was also the time Herman Cain hired a goldfish method actor to act out the tea party's view of the stimulus package.
And there was the time he let a J.J. Abrams look-a-like shoot a rabbit.
And then there was that time a chicken killed a guy.
It wasn't just Herman Cain either. Many tea party candidates have a gift for Buzzfeed-style ads.
Recall the time Kristi Noem attacked her opponent by -- listing all of his many accomplishments?
And then there's this one from California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, who's running for governor.
10. Americans for Prosperity and Co. spend $122 million in 2012
Americans for Prosperity, the political organization started by the Koch brothers that fights to elect conservative candidates who usually align with tea party principles, didn't spend money very efficiently in 2012; they lost many of the races they flooded with money, didn't get a Republican in the White House, and failed to give the GOP a Senate majority. However, they warned that they would spend even more this year and in 2016: “Every year we’ve expanded capability and impact, and we expect that to continue.”
Regardless of their performance on the national stage, you can't deny that they've been successful in many states, helping turn North Carolina, Wisconsin, Arkansas and other statehouses redder and redder every year.
"Judge strikes down Texas ban on same-sex marriage" — David A. Fahrenthold and Niraj Chokshi
"Momentum Is Seen as More States Consider Legalizing Marijuana" — Rick Lyman, The New York Times
"Hope on Horizon for Home-Supply Crunch: Builder Borrowing Picks Up" — Kris Hudson, The Wall Street Journal