Tea Party Activists Gaining Steam Across the Country

From Florida to California, conservatives are challenging moderate Republicans.

January 6, 2010, 11:09 AM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 7, 2010— -- A political movement is sweeping the country, and taking politicians down.

The most recent victim of "tea party" activists was Florida Republican Jim Greer, who resigned from as state party chairman this week, in part because of the activists' objections to his alliance with Florida's Republican governor, Charlie Crist, who is running for the U.S. Senate.

The activists are vocally supporting Crist's opponent -- a young, outspoken conservative, Marco Rubio -- and some believe the tea party group may bring down Crist, too.

"As you know, there is a great debate in our party on the direction, moderates versus conservatives," Greer told Talking Points Memo. "Over the last six months there has been a very vocal group within our party that has become very active in seeking an effort to oust me as chairman."

Tea party activists in California may cause the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 company to lose her bid for the U.S. Senate because she's not conservative enough.

And in Kentucky, Rand Paul, the son of a former presidential candidate Ron Paul, is riding the tea party wave.

Next week, Eric Odom, the man most often regarded as the founder of the tea party movement, is taking a crew of tea party followers to Massachusetts, sensing the Democrat running for Ted Kennedy's old seat, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, might be vulnerable.

"Every group that organized rallies last year is now looking to be involved in the electoral process," Odom said.

So-called "tea party patriots" are members of a political movement sweeping America whose core beliefs center around fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets.

"I think Republicans definitely dismiss this at their peril. I also think Democrats, by trying to marginalize it, underestimate the anger out there," political analyst Matthew Dowd said.

The movement appears to be gaining momentum, thanks in part to members like Danita Kilcullen, a Florida military mom who has been organizing gatherings every weekend for 46 weeks and posting video on YouTube.

"We just don't give up. We're unrelenting," Kilcullen said. "The tea parties across America are going to have a great deal to say about who is in office."

The tea party name has some history. There was the Boston Tea Party of 1773, a significant event in American history in which American colonists rebelled against the British government by refusing to pay taxes for tea, and instead destroyed the tea by dumping it in Boston Harbor.

But the new definition of "tea party" is a lot more recent. Last February, CNBC analyst Rick Santelli said he was forming a "tea party" to oppose the Obama administration's plans to refinance American mortgages. Santelli said the bailout would promote "bad behavior" and reward "losers".

"We're thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up at Lake Michigan, I'm going to start organzing!" he shouted.

Tea party protests cropped up around the country. On the April 15 tax deadline day, and throughout the summer, "tea party" activists protested against President Obama's roughly $900 billion health care overhaul initiative, following a $787 billion stimulus package passed by Congress in February 2009 during a time of a record budget deficit and the worst recession since the Great Depression.

In November, the group protested against Obama's promise of immigration reform. A fistfight broke out among tea party protestors and counter-protestors from ANSWER, a pro-immigration reform group.

"A year ago, the Obama supporters were the passionate ones," New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote this week. "Now the tea party brigades have all the intensity."

By one count, there are at least 3,000 tea party organizations all over the country. The largest Facebook group of tea party enthusiasts has nearly 50,000 members. One group even has its own online newsletter, the New Patriot Journal.

The majority of supporters are Republicans. But as the number of self-identified Republicans continues to drop, the tea party moniker is also drawing independents.

Julie Weathers of Odessa, Texas, a registered independent, said she supports most of the tea party ideals, especially the notion of limited spending during times of economic crisis.

"If I'm in a budget crunch and I am, that means I cut out things that aren't necessary," she said. "I don't have cable. I live without it. I budget my groceries. ... This is not a government that even knows what the term fiscal responsibility is."

And there are Democratic converts in the tea party ranks now, too.

Nate Whigham of Atlanta voted for Obama, comes from a long line of Demcorats, and now is helping to organize the Georgia tea party.

"The tea party aligned with what I was already feeling with three core values, which are fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets," Whigham said.

The nationwide movement has no identifiable leader, but there is plenty of star power.

Conservative television news talk show host Glenn Beck has given a face to the movement. And former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is confirmed to speak at two upcoming tea party conferences in Nashville and San Antonio.

Because they have growing influence, moderates are scrambling to show their support.

Rob Simmons, a former Connecticut congressman who is running for Senate, recently added a tea bag to the copy of the U.S. Constitution he always carries in his pocket.

Think of it as armor, proof of his solidarity with the tea party.

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