Tea Party Luminaries Angle for Influence in New GOP Order

Rep. Bachmann, Sen. DeMint want to be liaisons between Tea Party and Congress.

WASHINGTON, Nov. 9, 2010— -- The Tea Party movement prides itself on being a leader-less amalgam of grassroots groups, fervently supportive of the Constitution, smaller government, lower taxes and spending cuts. Organizers say it's the ideals, not individual luminaries that give the movement its name.

But as a slew of newly-elected Tea Party favorites and political rookies join the ranks of the Washington elite, two incumbent champions of conservative principles are stepping up -- and out -- to claim the mantle of liaison between the movement and the new Congress.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, says her "energetic national constituency" of Tea Party loyalists makes her fittest to lead the House Republican Conference.

"I have fought continually (and at some cost) for the principals of constitutional conservatism," she said in a letter to colleagues ahead of the GOP leadership elections next week.

"It is important that our Conference demonstrate to the people who sent us here that their concerns will be tirelessly advanced at the table of leadership," she said.

Bachmann, 54, a former tax attorney and state senator, and a favorite of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, raised and spent more money than any other U.S. House candidate this year, collecting $11 million, mostly in the form of of small-scale donations from Tea Party supporters across the country.

Take the Quiz: How Well Do You Know the Tea Party Movement?

Meanwhile, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who has said he "can't claim to be the leader of the Tea Party" but has attained folk hero status, appears as close to the movement's leader in the Senate as one could get.

The man who famously issued a rallying call to Tea Party members in the summer of 2009 to make the health care reform fight President Obama's "Waterloo" -- "It will break him," he said at the time -- waged a hard-line war against moderates within his own party during the campaign.

DeMint played kingmaker, always with the support of the Tea Party, endorsing and funding conservative candidates who across the board were political-outsiders.

Senators-elect Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Pat Toomey and Ron Johnson all received support from DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund PAC. And now the group could represent a powerful counterweight to the party's more traditional, moderate leadership.

"Jim DeMint is going to be one of the most influential persons in the Senate," Dick Armey, chairman of the Tea Party-associated group FreedomWorks, recently predicted in The Greenville News.

Bachmann, DeMint Face Limits to Influence

Still, both Bachmann and DeMint face clear limits to their ability to shake up the status quo, pushing their brand of conservatism by building strong Tea Party coalitions under the Capitol dome.

An informal ABC News canvas of all incoming freshman House Republicans found none willing to support Bachmann for a leadership post. And most were noncommittal about joining the Tea Party Caucus altogether.

"We would have to take a look at it," a spokesman for incoming Illinois Republican Bobby Schilling said of the decision. "We have not looked at the agenda or platform. It has to abide by the principles of less government, lower taxes, and less spending."

Top Republican aides in the House and the Senate have also privately expressed reservations about awarding leadership posts to Bachmann and DeMint.

"Bachmann is a prototypical congressional show horse, trying to increase her media visibility to push her agenda," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College. "Her style isn't workhorse, legislative style, and her flamboyancy puts a ceiling on her support, even though she's from a conservative district."

Texas Congressman Jeb Hensarling, perhaps equally as conservative as Bachmann but less contentious, is seen as the front-runner for the post of House Republican Conference Chair.

2010 Election Results: Tea Party Winners and Losers

Meanwhile, DeMint, who has cultivated a more cautious public persona than Bachmann, has weathered intraparty criticism for supporting anti-establishment candidates like Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle in the primaries instead of more mainstream candidates whom party leaders deemed more electable. Losses by O'Donnell and Angle in the general election cost Republicans control of the Senate, the critics say.

He also faces tepid support within the GOP for some of his more controversial policies, including an outright ban on earmarks.

Still, whether or not Bachmann and DeMint assume official leadership roles, the enthusiastic support they receive from thousands of Tea Party faithful will likely give them currency to keep agitating the party establishment in the years ahead.

"The Tea Party [is] responsible for just about every Republican who was elected around the country," DeMint said Sunday. "We saw candidates that were supported by a Tea Party in a new active wave of citizens, change the face of the Senate. ... This is a huge change for the Republican Party. And I think it's going to be very positive for our country."

ABC News' Michael Falcone, Sherisse Pham, Jennifer Schlesinger, Jared Pliner, Maya Srikrishnan, and Josh Goldstein contributed to this report.