The energized "tea party" movement, which upended this year's political debate with noisy anti-government protests, is preparing to shake up the 2010 elections by channeling money and supporters to conservative candidates set to challenge both Democrats and Republicans.
Buoyed by their success in capsizing a moderate Republican candidate this fall in Upstate New York, tea party activists and affiliated groups are unveiling new political action committees and tactics aimed at capitalizing on conservative opposition to health-care reform, financial bailouts and other Obama administration policies. The goal is to harness the anger that led to hundreds of protests around the country from spring to fall, including a gathering of tens of thousands of protesters on the Mall in September.
The strategy poses both an opportunity and a risk for the beleaguered Republican Party, which is seeking to take advantage of conservative discontent while still fielding candidates who appeal to independent voters. Fundraising efforts are just beginning, but tea party activists have already inspired serious challenges to establishment GOP Senate candidates Carly Fiorina in California and Charlie Crist in Florida; a similar insurgency in last month's House race in New York splintered local Republicans, leading to a Democratic victory.
"It's time to take control," conservative activist Eric Odom declares on the Web site of his new political action committee, Liberty First PAC, which will "support fellow patriots looking [to] defend our liberty." Odom, who played a central role in organizing the first tea party protests this spring, says the PAC will not support incumbents of either party.
Smart Girl Politics, a conservative women's group active in getting people to tea party protests, is considering forming a PAC to steer its 23,000 members to help conservative candidates.
Another influential activist, Erick Erickson of RedState.com, plans to encourage donations to conservative challengers such as GOP Senate candidate Pat Toomey, who hopes to win the Pennsylvania seat held by Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter.
And in Washington, FreedomWorks, an advocacy group that helped organize many major tea party protests, is set to announce plans this month to raise millions of dollars through a reorganized PAC targeting its 500,000 registered members, said Matt Kibbe, the group's president. Chaired by former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), the group says its fundraising effort will be modeled on the Internet financing juggernaut created by Barack Obama in 2008.
"We're looking at the potential of raising small checks from a vast number of donors, just as Obama did," Kibbe said. "We've been studying everything about the Obama primary strategy, and I happen to think the tea party movement could make even the Obama grass-roots machine look obsolete."
Can the movement unite?
But Kibbe and others acknowledge that they are not near that point yet, and political experts in both parties say it is unclear if the movement can become the kind of unified force that can win, and not just disrupt, elections.
The tea party movement is splintered into hundreds of local and state-level groups that have differing rules and goals and for the most part have not participated in big-money politics. Many of the groups have been torn apart by personal feuds in recent months; one major umbrella organization, the Tea Party Patriots, has filed a lawsuit against a founding board member who signed on with a rival, the Tea Party Express.
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said during a speech last week that the "tea party movement is savaging the GOP" and has sparked a "corrosive and consistent fight" over the party's direction.
Conservative activists vehemently disagree and argue that the movement is likely to be reenergized by the expected passage of health-care legislation and a national tea party convention in February featuring former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
"For a long time there was some complacency, but now people are seeing this year what a genuinely big government can do to their economic freedoms," said Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity, a Washington-based group that has organized protests.
Publicly, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele and other GOP leaders praise the tea party movement as a crucial component of the party's base that will help Republicans make substantial gains in 2010. But the push from the right has also worsened infighting over the GOP's course.
Exhibit A for moderates is the November special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District, where conservative outsider Doug Hoffman challenged moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava, who dropped out under pressure from Palin, the antitax Club for Growth and other conservatives. But the winner was the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens, who captured a seat that had been in Republican hands for more than a century.
In the wake of that result, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said it is important, in selecting candidates, to "temper our conservative approach with pragmatism."
But many conservative activists see the outcome as a demonstration of the power of grass-roots activism. "Conservatives keep saying that nobody is listening to us, and the way to get people to listen to you is to elect more conservatives," said Erickson, who advocates boycotting Cornyn's NRSC and has called "beating the Republican establishment" the top priority for 2010.
A liberal antecedent
Such rhetoric is reminiscent in some ways of that in 2005 and 2006, when liberal groups such as MoveOn.org championed their own candidates in an effort to push Democrats to the left. This year, for example, one group of conservative activists is circulating a resolution that would bar the RNC from endorsing candidates who violate more than three of 10 declared party principles.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has closely allied himself with the tea party movement, has been meeting in recent weeks with prospective conservative candidates seeking help from his leadership PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund. The PAC, which spent less than $200,000 during the 2008 election cycle, has spent more than $1.2 million this year, including contributing $10,000 to Marco Rubio of Florida, who is running an insurgent Senate primary campaign against Crist.
Many tea party conservatives oppose Crist, the state's sitting governor, because of his support of Obama's stimulus plan. Despite the grass-roots backing, however, Rubio has raised only $1.6 million, compared with nearly $7 million raised by Crist.
Another pivotal race is in California, where Fiorina, a multimillionaire former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, is seeking the GOP nomination to challenge third-term Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in November.
Many tea party activists view Fiorina as too liberal and have fueled an upstart challenge by state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who has been active in tea party protests.
DeVore reported $144,000 on hand as of September and acknowledged in an interview that raising money against Fiorina will not be easy. "Most of her money will come from the establishment," DeVore predicted. "It's a more difficult challenge than what Hoffman had."