The tea party's second act: Was 2010 a steppingstone or a high-water mark?

The 2010 midterm elections were marked by ubiquitous images of voters waving Gadsen flags in the sun, women with tea bags hanging from their hat brims, and determined men in Paul Revere costumes shouting proclamations.

What happened to those people?

If you ask the people who helped organize the tea party into a movement, they'll readily concede that tea party rallies this election cycle are not as prolific as they were in 2010. But they say they're doing one better this year: instead of simply rallying, they're organized and on the ground (and on the phone, in your mailbox and on your radio and television) in select states to try to elect tea party candidates to office and effect what they say is "real change."

"The movement has matured … and we're now tea party 2.0," Amy Kremer, the chairwoman of Tea Party Express, told Yahoo News. Kremer and other tea party leaders say that while the tea party rose to fame in 2010, that cycle was just a learning period for the movement.

"In 2010, we didn't have our feet under us," Brendan Steinhauser, the federal and state campaigns director of FreedomWorks, told Yahoo News. Instead of a "haphazard" plan, as he described it, 2012 will bring a "much more sophisticated approach."

The tea party in 2010 made headlines for its rallies, its anger and its energy. But its most lasting changes came in the form of getting tea party candidates elected to office, sometimes at the peril of establishment Republicans. The movement's leaders say they plan to do the same this cycle.

"Some folks think the tea party has gone away because they're not out seeing 5,000 at a time waving 'Don't Tread on Me' flags," Indiana Senate challenger and tea party candidate Richard Mourdock told Yahoo News last week. "But where they are are working as volunteers in campaigns like this campaign."

If Mourdock, the state treasurer, defeats Sen. Dick Lugar on May 5, he will largely have the tea party to thank.

His campaign fits the tea party narrative: the 36-year Senate veteran Lugar is being portrayed as too moderate for his state, having voted for the bailouts, for President Obama's stimulus bill, and to confirm Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Mourdock, who sued over the auto bailout, casts himself as a limited-government fiscal conservative.

Two years ago, tea party supporters in Indiana split between two candidates in the state's Senate Republican primary. In an example of how 2010 was a learning period for the movement, an umbrella organization called Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate was created to unify the tea party behind a single candidate.

Late last year, the new organization brought together 55 tea party groups across the state to endorse Mourdock.

"We were learning the process in 2010," Monica Bowers, who helped found the group, told Yahoo News of the tea party in general. "We were angry about what was going on, but we didn't know what to do about it."

She added, "Now we've gone into a working mode."

People from 47 tea party groups are expected to travel to Indianapolis on Saturday, according to Bowers, for an event to get out the vote for Mourdock ahead of Tuesday's vote.

A loss by Lugar would prove the strength of Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate to the state establishment as well as to the nation.

"It would be a victory for conservatism," Bowers said. "And for the heart and soul of the Republican party."

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