By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 12:01 AM
In an unruly, unpredictable and chaotic election year, no group has asserted its presence and demanded to be heard more forcefully than the tea party. The grass-roots movement that was spawned with a rant has gone on to upend the existing political order, reshaping the debate in Washington, defeating a number of prominent lawmakers and elevating a fresh cast of conservative stars.
But a new Washington Post canvass of hundreds of local tea party groups reveals a different sort of organization, one that is not so much a movement as a disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings that do surprisingly little to engage in the political process.
The results come from a months-long effort by The Post to contact every tea party group in the nation, an unprecedented attempt to understand the network of individuals and organizations at the heart of the nascent movement.
Seventy percent of the grass-roots groups said they have not participated in any political campaigning this year. As a whole, they have no official candidate slates, have not rallied behind any particular national leader, have little money on hand, and remain ambivalent about their goals and the political process in general.
"We're not wanting to be a third party," said Matt Ney, 55, the owner of a Pilates studio and a founder of the Pearland Tea Party Patriots in Pearland, Tex. "We're not wanting to endorse individual candidates ever. What we're trying to do is be activists by pushing a conservative idea."
The group, with 25 active members, meets to discuss policies and listen to speakers, Ney said. "We provide opportunities for like-minded people to get together," he said.
The local groups stand in contrast to - and, in their minds, apart from - a handful of large national groups that claim the tea party label. Most of those outfits, including FreedomWorks and Tea Party Express, are headed by longtime political players who have used their resources and know-how to help elect a number of candidates.
The findings suggest that the breadth of the tea party may be inflated. The Atlanta-based Tea Party Patriots, for example, says it has a listing of more than 2,300 local groups, but The Post was unable to identify anywhere near that many, despite help from the organization and independent research.
In all, The Post identified more than 1,400 possible groups and was able to verify and reach 647 of them. Each answered a lengthy questionnaire about their beliefs, members and goals. The Post tried calling the others as many as six times. It is unclear whether they are just hard to reach or don't exist.
Mark Meckler, a founding member of the Tea Party Patriots, said: "When a group lists themselves on our Web site, that's a group. That group could be one person, it could be 10 people, it could come in and out of existence - we don't know. We have groups that I know are 15,000 people, and I have groups that I know are five people."'We can't always agree'
There is little agreement among the leaders of various groups about what issue the tea party should be most concerned about. In fact, few saw themselves as part of a coordinated effort.
The most common responses were concerns about spending and limiting the size of government, but together those were named by less than half the groups. Social issues, such as same-sex marriage and abortion rights, did not register as concerns.
If anything tied the groups together, it was what motivated their members to participate. Virtually all said that economic concerns were a factor, and nearly as many cited a general mistrust of government. Opposition to President Obama and Democratic policies was a big factor, but only slightly more so than dissatisfaction with mainstream Republican leaders.
Eleven percent said that Obama's race, religion or ethnic background was either a "very important" or "somewhat important" factor in the support their group has received.
While the tea party groups may lack a unifying direction or vision at the moment, the results show that they are ripe for action. A remarkable 86 percent of local leaders said most of their members are new to political activity, suggesting that they could be turned into a potent grass-roots force heading into the 2012 elections.
Of course, their general lack of interest in politics also suggests that they could just as easily recede, particularly if the economy improves.
The tea party's biggest successes this year have come only after one of a handful of well-funded national groups swooped in to mobilize local support. In upset victories in Alaska and Delaware, for instance, the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising for Republican Senate candidates Joe Miller and Christine O'Donnell, respectively.
Other national groups, such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, have also built organizations and spent millions of dollars on advertising, high-profile bus tours or other direct campaign tactics.
Some of the local group leaders may find such tactics distasteful. Fifty-seven percent said they want to operate as a network of independent entities. And many organizers said the lack of coordination and the independence of the groups are what drew them to the movement, even if it is a liability when it comes to turning their beliefs into action.
"It's both an advantage and a disadvantage," said Joe Lisante, 43, a family doctor and a founder of Miami County Liberty, a group near Dayton, Ohio.
"If you're an opponent of the tea party, we're not an easy target," he said. "Some of the groups want to take on prayer in school. Some of them want to take on voter education. Some want to be endorsing candidates. But there is no particular person, at least in the state of Ohio, who is the president of the tea party; it just doesn't exist. That's a disadvantage for us because we can't move quickly on things. We can't always agree."From one member to thousands
Many of the groups that were interviewed claim hundreds of members and some boast thousands, but most said they have fewer than 50. A number of them appear to be limited to family or friends - the Northern Connecticut Patriots, for instance, counts seven members; the Southeast Wyoming Tea Party Patriots has one.
Jeff Lafferty, 48, a landscaper in Cheyenne, Wyo., said he formed the Southeast Wyoming Tea Party Patriots in April after growing increasingly concerned about such federal actions as the bank bailouts and the stimulus bill. But Lafferty attracted just one person to his only meeting, in part because a 9/12 Project tea party group in Cheyenne was already active, he said. Moreover, he said he has since grown disillusioned with the movement and the signs that some of its members are motivated by racism against Obama. Not only is his group no longer functioning, he said, but it "never was."
Donna Riner, 52, a medical practice manager, founded the five-member San Carlos Tea Party, in San Diego, which has met just once. "I just invited friends and family members," Riner said. "I wanted them to know what the tea party represents. It's about smaller government and less taxes. I wanted them to go on the national lists and join and give money to some of the big groups that support the people I believe in."
The tea party has been accused of racism by its political opponents after comments from some prominent members and signs at several major rallies this year that attacked Obama for either his race or the false belief that he is a Muslim. At rallies, for instances, organizers have kicked out questionable members and have sought to project a more tolerant image.
But the interviews found that Obama's race is, in fact, important in more than one in 10 tea party groups.
Andy Stevens, 68, a video producer and a founder of the Tea Party Patriots in Anacortes, Wash., said he described Obama's race and and religion as "somewhat important" to members of his group because they remain troubled by what they see as the president's un-American and un-Christian behaviors.
In Stevens's view, those include Obama's "socialist" policies and intentional failure to mention "the creator" when talking about inalienable rights.
"There are questions that don't get answered, like citizenship and his birth certificate," Stevens said. "I don't know why questions keep popping up all the time. If something is irrefutable, the questions wouldn't keep popping up."
The groups clearly do not identify with any particular national leaders, an indication that there is no tea party front-runner to take on Obama in 2012. When asked to name a national leader who best represents their views, more than a third of the groups said "no one."
One question remains: If most tea party groups don't engage in political campaigning, what exactly do they do?
Lisante, from Miami County, Ohio, said his meetings generally start with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a prayer, and then a speaker and a skit - the most recent was about the bank bailout. (Lisante said it was very funny.) The point, he said, is not to organize political action but to educate members and encourage them to become active on their own.
"Basically, we say: 'Listen, guys: You can no longer be the one who doesn't vote,' " Lisante said. " 'If you want to have an impact, you've got to show up.' "
Database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.