‘Tea party’ movement looks beyond talk

In the year since thousands of passionate, frustrated conservatives rallied on tax day and declared themselves a movement, the “tea party” activists have successfully made themselves into a force to be reckoned with in American politics.

But even as 800 more rallies are planned on another tax day Thursday, some leaders acknowledge that the protests may have waning impact.

They’ve raised money -- largely online -- but the amount is hard to track and dispersed across many organizations. They’ve prompted hundreds of hours and thousands of words in news coverage, although the scrutiny often has shone light on the fringe elements. Their vigorous grass-roots opposition to healthcare reform put lawmakers’ feet to the fire, but the bill still passed.

Now, with thousands expected to gather on street corners and at statehouses, tea party leaders say they’re focused on electing candidates who share their belief in strict fiscal conservatism and limited government. On this front, too, the movement’s record has been mixed. Tea party-aligned candidates fared poorly in GOP primaries in Texas and Illinois. But activists had no problem casting aside differences to unite behind the successful Massachusetts Senate bid of Scott Brown, a moderate.

“They’re unpredictable, uncertain and can’t be taken for granted, and that’s why everyone has to take pause,” said Republican pollster Linda DiVall, who repeated the GOP fear that the tea party could evolve in a way that splits conservative votes. “You want to keep them in the tent.”

That has fiscally conservative candidates, as well as more moderate ones, adopting the movement’s rhetoric. In a few races, tea party-linked candidates have Republican incumbents, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Robert Bennett of Utah, on their heels.

In those places and others, it’s clear the tea party energy is pouring into campaigns.

“A lot of activists really cut their teeth on the healthcare fight and then went on to get involved in the state elections,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a grass-roots coordinator at FreedomWorks, the advocacy group involved in organizing a tax day rally on the National Mall in Washington.

FreedomWorks and other organizers hope Thursday’s rallies will be another chance to recruit new followers, collect more e-mail addresses and phone numbers and demonstrate one of the movement’s greatest strengths in an election year: They have activists in just about every corner -- every congressional district -- in the country.

But as some planned for the tax day rallies this week, others were bemoaning the energy and resources spent on protests.

“I think these protests are a good thing, but they fundamentally change nothing,” said Ned Ryun, president of the nonprofit American Majority, which trains tea party activists. “After Thursday, activists need to go home and figure out what it takes to win. . . . In a perfect world we would hold these protests and then that would be it, between here and the fall it would be all about organizing.”

Erick Erickson, another prominent leader in the movement, expressed a similar sentiment on his blog. Erickson declared it was time for tea partyers to move beyond protesting into primaries, canvassing and get-out-the-vote operations. “The season of the tea party is sunsetting,” he wrote.

Erickson and Ryun are among those calling for more activist and candidate training sessions, and more direct political engagement. That generally means aligning with a political party, which some in a movement that resists partisan labeling have been hesitant to do.

And activist training is only a piece of becoming an organized force in elections. It also takes money. And on that front, the tea party movement efforts have been even more diffuse. A small number of tea party-linked groups have formed committees and are said to be raising money for use in congressional elections, but few have had to report their fundraising totals yet.

“We’re still in start-up mode,” said Memphis Tea Party founder Mark Skoda, who announced plans in February to form a fundraising committee. “Quite frankly, it’s taking longer than we would have liked.”

Tea Party Express, a political action committee run by Republican political consultants, is perhaps the biggest tea party spender in races. Since launching its bus tours in July, it’s raised $2.7 million.