GREENVILLE, S.C. — It had been four days since House Speaker John A. Boehner slammed conservative groups for opposing a bipartisan budget deal, saying they’d “lost all credibility,” and “I don’t care what they do,” and other things read as a declaration of independence from the tea party movement that has held sway over the Republican Party.
Now it was Monday evening far from Washington, in a restaurant called Tommy’s Country Ham House, and the very people who felt insulted by Boehner’s remarks were beginning to gather — a crowd of 150 or so coming to say they were not done yet.
Although poll numbers showed the tea party more unpopular than ever, here was Mary Beth Green arriving in a car with a bumper sticker that read “I Am a Free American.” With a budget deal they staunchly opposed about to be passed in Congress, here came Linda Weeks with “Economic Freedom in Action” T-shirts and Debbie Spaugh with a fresh white banner she hung by a Christmas tree in the corner.
“Americans for Prosperity South Carolina — True Reform, True Growth, True Opportunity,” it read.
The event was long planned, a free chicken-dinner kickoff for the 35th state chapter of the anti-tax, anti-regulation group funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Tim Phillips, the group’s president, said the gathering was not a reaction to Boehner (R-Ohio), or to wage “some supposed war in the party,” but about “building a meaningful grass-roots infrastructure so we can win these battles — these policy battles — at the local, state and federal level.”
But now an unexpected feeling of being under attack had sharpened the mood among the grass roots coming through the double glass doors of the Ham House, a parade of faces and names familiar to one another from so many e-mail lists, tea party rallies and living-room meetings.
“Nice to see you, Mr. Rickard,” someone said to Alan Rickard, 57, who described himself as an “envoy” from the tea party group in Orangeburg County, S.C., and said he agreed with what radio host Rush Limbaugh had been saying earlier in the day, that the tea party movement is a “way of life” that can never die.
“There is rightness that is coming from the ranks,” Rickard said.
He joined a buffet line with Bob Dowd, 70, a retired police officer who said, “I think Speaker Boehner needs to be replaced — I don’t think he understands where we’re going.”
“Good job, Bob,” his wife said.
Milling around was Bob Dill, 80, editor of the Times Examiner newspaper, whose motto is Matthew 16:3 (“. . . can ye not discern the signs of the times?”) and whose most recent headlines included “Dr. Ben Carson’s Presidential Campaign Taking Shape,” about the neurosurgeon popular among religious conservatives.
Dill said he did not believe polls showing tea party conservatives losing popularity.
“I think it’s wishful thinking on the part of the leadership of the Republican Party,” he said. “I feel more energized.”
Mary Beth Green and Linda Weeks circulated a petition opposing President Obama’s federal health-care law.
“Would you sign?” Green asked.
“Anything for a patriot,” a man said.
Dean Allen, who is writing a book called “Rattlesnake Revolution: The Tea Party Strikes!,” said it was people like him who are the future of the party.
“You’ve got to have people in this room excited,” he said, waving a biscuit. “It’s who will open their checkbook, who will put the signs on the road. . . . When we are demoralized we get crap like Obama in the White House.”
“Hear, hear!” said Justin Alexander, 33, biting into his fried chicken.
Soon, everyone stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, and the program began.
Debbie Spaugh gave a short speech about her “journey” in the conservative movement, from her first rally against the Affordable Care Act to her new job as paid co-chair of Americans for Prosperity’s state chapter, which has about 16,500 members. The new state director, who is from Virginia and also is paid, introduced himself.
Then Phillips stood to address the mostly white, mostly graying crowd in red vests and holiday sweaters and ties.
“Good evening, fellow freedom fighters!” he began joyously.
But after hitting the usual applause lines about cutting taxes, spending and regulations, Phillips shifted his tone and began painting a picture of the political moment that was not as rosy as many in the room seemed to think.
“We have to do better,” he said, and there was not much applause. “Candidly, it’s not the most exciting thing to talk about, but we’ve got to get better at data analytics.”
He talked about the need for more money, the need for more volunteer time, for a more “professional, motivated, numerous grass-roots army — and folks, the left has got it.” Forks clinked on plates as people continued to listen in silence.
“When I look at this state, and compare it to other states that are red states? I see a state that is underperforming, I do,” he said of one of the most reliably conservative states in the nation.
“We have noticed something disturbing,” he continued, pacing on the worn carpet. “Our conservative base, over two to three years, is not growing” — and then he switched tones again.
“There is a path forward,” he assured the audience. “In South Carolina, there are 200,000 people who are with us and are not registered and not voting. I’m telling you: Our job is to register them and turn them out.
“This is about shoe leather. We are going to ask you to be part of that. . . . This is a Saturday meeting at Wal-Mart. It’s phone banks. It’s social media. If we are serious about winning, we have to do what we haven’t done before. In the end, we have to ask: How badly do I want to win for my principles? As a movement, how badly do we want to win?”
Now there was applause, and soon 150 people were on their way out of the Ham House.
Jackie Fielder, 65, who had been taking notes, said she felt encouraged.
“To be honest, there was a while after the presidential election that I went through a period of depression,” she said. “I began to question myself. But I believe in everything the speakers said. I will join. I will help in a financial way. I don’t know how much help I can be in the shoe-leather department.”
Bob Dowd said “better candidates” are needed.
“We put signs up all over the place all the time,” he said as he and his wife left with a free water bottle.
Green asked a few stragglers to sign the petition.
“I already signed,” said a man heading out, and now it was just Green, Spaugh and Weeks packing up the banner and the leftover stacks of brochures and signs.
Weeks, the other co-chair of the now-launched Americans for Prosperity group, gathered her purse. She had spent five years as a conservative activist, and here came her sixth.
“We’ve been working really hard,” she said. “To hear what Boehner said was very upsetting. But from what I hear, more and more conservatives are coming out of the woodwork. Instead of pushing us back, he has just unleashed us.”