Their partisans in Washington have shut down the government and, as the debt ceiling deadline nears, have given much of the country a case of the shakes. But these are heady times for the tea party.
"It's amazing how we can be completely irrelevant and shut down Congress at the same time," one of the movement's early organizers, Mark Meckler, chortled at a Saturday evening gathering at the weekend state Republican party convention in Anaheim.
Minutes earlier, Tim Donnelly, a former Minuteman border watch leader who is the movement's favored candidate for governor, rolled into the meeting to a standing ovation from nearly 200 tea party supporters.
"And they say the tea party is dead?" he opened.
Not quite. The movement may not have demonstrated electoral heft in California yet — Republicans hold no state offices and are outmanned in Sacramento and in Washington, and tea party members can claim only some of those seats.
But they made themselves heard this weekend. Members helped push several resolutions during Sunday's general session, including ones to require voters to show identification before casting ballots and to gut the state's high speed rail program.
The tea party caucus was making its first appearance at a state party convention, after launching a determined effort to build its presence within the party rather than either ally or attack from the outside. But its outsider genes were evident, as was its air of grievance.
"There's been no place for people who have been left out and left behind to go," Donnelly said, "besides the tea party."
On Saturday, before one of the most enthusiastic meetings of the three-day session, Meckler blistered party leaders for accepting donations from the SEIU labor group and the prison guards union. He also gleefully attacked past state party chairman Ron Nehring and the gubernatorial candidate for whom Nehring is working, former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado.
"I ask myself, is this the Republican party or have we now changed our name to the Loser and Traitor Party?" he asked.
Donnelly warned Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown against signing any measures that would restrict gun owners. He recounted from memory the 2nd Amendment; the crowd accompanied him on the last line.
But Donnelly — who faces a steep trajectory en route to a serious gubernatorial challenge — adopted a more menacing tone as he wrapped up his pitch.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "We the people of this great state are going to draw a line in the sand and we're going to say we're not going to be driven off our property. We will not be driven off our homes by anything. We are not going to settle for government control whether you're trying to deprive us of our guns or our private property. We're not having any, because we're Americans."
Other tea party members who crowded into a meeting room shared his pointed approach. As the meeting was about to begin, one woman commanded her colleagues standing along the room's perimeter: "Open the doors so they can hear us," she said.