While the energy of the anti-tax and anti-Big Government tea party movement may yet haunt Democrats in 2010, the first order of business appears to be remaking the Republican Party.
Whether it’s the loose confederation of Washington-oriented groups that have played an organizational role or the state-level activists who are channeling grass-roots anger into action back home, tea party forces are confronting the Republican establishment by backing insurgent conservatives and generating their own candidates — even if it means taking on GOP incumbents.
“We will be a headache for anyone who believes the Constitution of the United States … isn’t to be protected,” said Dick Armey, chairman of the anti-tax and limited government advocacy group FreedomWorks, which helped plan and promote the tea parties, town hall protests and the September ‘Taxpayer March’ in Washington. “If you can’t take it seriously, we will look for places of other employment for you.”
“We’re not a partisan organization, and I think many Republicans are disappointed we are not,” added Armey, a former GOP congressman.
In Florida, where the national party has signaled its preference for centrist Gov. Charlie Crist in the GOP Senate primary, tea party activists are lining up behind former state House Speaker Marco Rubio in reaction to Crist’s public backing for President Barack Obama’s stimulus package.
“We were very disappointed with Gov. Charlie Crist when he supported the stimulus, the bailout, and he appeared publicly with President Obama,” said Everett Wilkinson, a South Florida-based organizer for Tea Party Patriots. “The opposition comes from Crist’s support for the largest spending plan ever and the environmental policies he’s pushing on the American people.”
Rubio has already made appearances at Florida tea parties, and protesters have been seen waving signs declaring, “Anybody but Charlie Crist.” He also has Armey’s endorsement, and Armey headlined a Dallas fundraiser for him several weeks ago.
Wilkinson said that the tax status of his Florida-based group limits what it can do to assist Rubio in the August 2010 primary. But he said the organization would launch an aggressive get-out-the-vote operation and issue a report card grading each candidate appearing on the ballot.
Tea party activists are also lining up behind challengers to GOP establishment-backed Senate candidates in Colorado and Connecticut. In California, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina — like Crist, another National Republican Senatorial Committee-favored Senate contender — is the target of tea party animus in her primary against conservative state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.
“My impression is that the support among tea partyers for DeVore is high,” said Mark Meckler, a California-based organizer for Tea Party Patriots. “I hear nothing but praise for the guy.”
Tea party organizers say their resistance to Republican Party-backed primary candidates has much to do with what they perceive as the GOP’s stubborn insistence on embracing candidates who don’t abide by a small government, anti-tax conservative philosophy.