November elections will be big test of tea party's staying power

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010; 4:04 AM

There may be no better illustration of the collective if disjointed strength of the tea party movement than Bucks County, Pa., a suburban sprawl outside Philadelphia.

There, in April 2009, two stay-at-home moms organized one of the first tea party groups in the country. They called themselves the Kitchen Table Patriots and began collecting e-mails and phone numbers of fellow conservatives.

Soon a scattering of other groups sprung up nearby, including the Lower Bucks County Tea Party Patriots, which hosted meetings where friends and neighbors could gather to share their frustration over the $814 billion federal stimulus package, bank and auto company bailouts, and other actions of the Obama administration.

Just a year and a half later, the Kitchen Table Patriots have discovered many new friends, some from far outside Pennsylvania. The group now operates out of a two-floor office, paid for by a national conservative group called the American Majority Action. Another big tea party funder, Washington-based FreedomWorks, is supplying yard signs and campaign literature.

To generate news coverage and excite local volunteers, yet another tea party organizing group, Americans for Prosperity, will make Bucks County a prominent stop on its "Spending Revolt" bus tour. And Tea Party Express, out of Sacramento, is considering a local stop on its fourth and final bus tour of the election cycle.

Still in its infancy, the tea party is often described as a coming together of like-minded Americans working in close coordination. In reality, it is more like a collision, a mash-up of disparate groups with differing priorities - some large, some small, most anger-fed and all with an ambition to overthrow the establishment to one degree or another. Some tea party groups are defiantly independent and take aim at Republicans as well as Democrats. Others seem more like offshoots of the Republican Party. The movement's competing missions overlap and some of its leaders - such as there are any - clash and distrust one another.

This tenuous assemblage of similar yet competing interests is one of the tea party's strengths. It has allowed the movement to rally millions of people by tapping into many strains of unhappiness.

Taken together, the many arms of the tea party movement have, in an impressively short time, grown into a potent and disruptive political force. It proved, in a series of stunning victories in Republican primaries across the nation, that it can mobilize volunteers, raise money (at least $60 million this year), end political careers and begin new ones. All without any formal structure or central leadership.

Now, with the next test of a general election approaching, the tea party has the nation's attention. The question is whether it is a momentary expression of discontent in an angry election year or the chaotic first efforts of a durable political movement.

Started with a rant

From its beginnings on the afternoon of Feb. 19, 2009, the tea party has been difficult for many Americans to understand. That day, CNBC commentator Rick Santelli, standing on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, unleashed a ferocious, hair-on-fire rant against President Obama's economic policies. He said he was going to hold a "Chicago Tea Party" to protest Obama's efforts to rescue defaulting homeowners.

As video of Santelli's sermon went viral on the Internet, Americans still in the thrall of the new administration dismissed him as an intolerant right-winger. But many others identified with his anger. They saw a government - and a president - who wanted to use their tax dollars to prop up the millionaire executives who sat atop bloated, badly run corporations and corrupt banks, and to bail out irresponsible citizens who had bought houses they couldn't afford.

Connected via Twitter, Facebook and plain-old e-mail, a vast network of conservative activists nationwide seized on the idea of a "tea party" and began planning them across the country.

Anastasia Przybylski, 38, a nurse and stay-at-home mother of three in Doylestown, Pa., was one of them. She had never been politically active in her life. On April 18 last year, Przybylski organized a tea party at Washington Crossing, the famous spot in Bucks County where George Washington led the Continental Army across the Delaware River toward the Battle of Trenton in 1776. A local reporter dubbed her group the Kitchen Table Patriots.

Przybylski still marvels that her early effort drew hundreds of protesters. "It was pretty amazing," she recalled. "People just kept coming and coming and coming."

It did not take long for establishment political groups to begin aligning themselves with this potentially powerful new movement. One was FreedomWorks, an organization that is hardly grass roots. Headed by former representative Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), who became a corporate lobbyist when he left the House - and flush with millions of dollars from Republican donors - it works to elect libertarian-leaning Republican candidates.

Its leaders quickly saw that an army of activists was awakening across the country - and that it had the resources to arm them for battle. With an e-mail list numbering in the hundreds of thousands, FreedomWorks sent out instructions on forming a tea party. The group went to Sacramento and other cities to help local activists put on that first wave of events. They created a Google map to help protesters link up. It attracted 2 million views.

"What we did was we nudged, we shoved, we gave people direction," Brendan Steinhauser, a FreedomWorks organizer, recalled. "We said . . . 'Here are the resources to do this,' and we asked, 'What do you need from us?' "

Subtle influences

The cleverest national groups - including FreedomWorks and Americans For Prosperity - forged alliances with local tea party groups, subtly influencing their work by providing resources and advice, but otherwise stayed out of the picture to maintain the movement's appearance and self-image as a purely spontaneous, ground-up phenomenon.

Tea partiers have reacted angrily whenever one group or another has tried to claim leadership over the movement.

Last year, Judson Phillips, a lawyer in Nashville, formed a group called Tea Party Nation and announced the first-ever tea party convention, in his hometown. The event drew heavy news media attention and elevated Sarah Palin, the keynote speaker, as a movement leader. But tea partiers around the country lashed out against the convention as being anti-"tea." The entry fee was $549; Palin was to be paid $100,000 to show up. Phillips was accused of trying to make a buck off the movement.

Another large tea party organizer, Tea Party Express, is an arm of the Sacramento-based Republican consulting firm Russo Marsh & Rogers. It has also come under criticism for grabbing the spotlight by anointing its candidates as the tea party pick, even when local tea party groups were supporting other contenders.

"We're still trying to figure out the 'hosts' and 'house guests' terms of the relationships," said Joe Wierzbicki, who works for Russo Marsh & Rogers and directs the Tea Party Express PAC. "The local group gets a bunch of people signed up and they get the membership, and we can help people put on rallies and bus tours, get talk radio involved. We're a consulting firm with media experts and the ability to put on events. We thought this was a very non-intrusive way to grow the network."

Tea Party Express lost favor with many activists when its outspoken chairman, talk-radio host Mark Williams, wrote a "satirical" letter from the "colored people" of America to Abraham Lincoln, in which he extolled slavery. He also called Obama "an Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug and a racist in chief."

Tea Party Express forced him out, but the episode only reinforced the belief among many tea party critics that the movement is fueled in part by racism against a black president. Tea partiers are especially sensitive to the charge. They say they should not be judged for what they describe as a small, unwelcome fringe element and they blame the news media for zeroing in on provocative, racially charged signs that can often be found at tea party rallies.

Attention to this sort of discord has faded in the wake of the tea party's successes in this year's primaries.

It isn't at all certain that the movement will be able to deploy with the same effect for the November general elections, when many moderate voters will be turning out - including those turned off by the tea party. But in the weeks ahead, tea partiers will be out in force, operating phone banks, raising money, knocking on doors - and looking ahead, past 2010 to 2012, when they hope to be the loudest voice in deciding who will run against Obama.

"Right now, we all have a common goal, all the different groups, the large groups, the local groups - and that is to prevent our country from continuing down this path of big spending and large government," said Przybylski, in Bucks County. "We've all had our rough moments, but we're all working together, and I think it's wonderful. We have proven as a movement that we can get people elected who stand with our principles. We're not going to go asleep at the wheel again."

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