The Tea Party movement ignited a year ago, fueled by anti-establishment anger. Now, Tea Party activists are trying to take over the establishment, ground up.
Across the country, they are signing up to be Republican precinct leaders, a position so low-level that it often remains vacant, but which comes with the ability to vote for the party executives who endorse candidates, approve platforms and decide where the party spends money.
A new group called the National Precinct Alliance says it has a coordinator in nearly every state to recruit Tea Party activists to fill the positions and has already swelled the number of like-minded members in Republican Party committees in Arizona and Nevada. Its mantra is this: take the precinct, take the state, take the party — and force it to nominate conservatives rather than people they see as liberals in Republican clothing.
Here, in a perennial battleground district outside Philadelphia, Tea Party activists are trying to strip the local committee of its influence in choosing the Republican nominee to run against Representative Patrick J. Murphy, a Democrat who won the seat in 2006 by about 1,500 votes.
After the local party said it would stick to its custom of endorsing a candidate rather than holding an open primary, Tea Party groups decided to hold their own candidate forum where people could cast a ballot. If the party does not yield, the groups say they will host a debate, too.
“We kind of changed the rules,” said Anastasia Przybylski, one of the organizers.
The Tea Party movement, named after the original tax revolt in 1773, might be better described as a diverse, rambunctious and Internet-connected network of groups, powered by grass-roots anxiety about the economy, bailouts and increasing government involvement in health care. At one extreme are militia members who have shown up at meetings wearing guns and suggesting that institutions like the Federal Reserve be eliminated. At the other are those like Ms. Przybylski, who describes herself as “just a stay-at-home mom” who became agitated about the federal stimulus package.
And if the Democrats are big-government socialists, the Republicans, in the Tea Party mind, are enablers.
In some recent polls, a hypothetical Tea Party wins more support than Democrats or Republicans, and the most anti-establishment Tea Party activists push to fight as a third party. But as the movement looks toward the midterm elections in November, a growing number of activists argue that the best way to translate anger into influence is to infiltrate the Republican establishment (Democrats being, for the average Tea Partier, beyond redemption).
“If you want to have revenge against the Republican Party for using you for so many years, the best way is to turn around and use the Republican Party to your advantage,” said Eric Odom, a Tea Party activist in Chicago who recently started a political action committee, and on his blog urged Tea Partiers to stop complaining about the Republican Party and “move in and take it over.”
Republican leaders have been trying to harness the Tea Party energy — Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, recently called the Tea Parties “a revelatory moment.”
“It puts in stark relief where the American people are, how they feel and what they feel,” Mr. Steele said. “It’s important for our party to appreciate and understand that so we can move toward it, and embrace it.”
Not all Republicans agree. Some say the party needs to broaden its reach, not cater to the fringe.
The defining experience for many Tea Party groups was the special election in the 23rd Congressional District of New York in November, where party leaders chose a candidate whom conservatives viewed as a Republican in name only — she supported same-sex marriage, abortion rights and the federal stimulus package. After activists flooded the district to support a conservative third-party candidate, the Republican dropped out and endorsed the Democrat, who won.
Conservatives took the Republican retreat as a victory, but also saw the power of the party structure in deciding who the candidates will be. The rallying cry for more local involvement has been “No more NY-23’s.”
“We don’t want to see what happened in New York happen here,” Ms. Przybylski said.
The forum here drew nine candidates and a standing-room crowd in an auditorium built for 1,200. The questions organizers had drawn up for the candidates hinted at the issues important to so called Teapublicans.
Will you pledge to vote against tax increases, even hidden taxes like those in health care reform? Should corporate executives who encourage illegal immigrants to stay because it is good for business be hauled off to jail? Do you believe manmade pollution is a significant contributor to global warming? (“I don’t necessarily think there’s been global warming,” one candidate objected.)
Each was asked to define the 10th Amendment, and to cite examples of where it “might have been violated.” “It’s my favorite amendment in the Constitution,” exclaimed one candidate, Ira Hoffman. “I can’t believe it!”
The amendment declares that powers not granted to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved to the states or the people, and Tea Party activists hold that Congress has overstepped its bounds, particularly by legislating health care. So candidates were asked whether they would support efforts to nullify the health care bill?
Finally, the moderator asked them if 2010 would be “the year of the Tea Party.” The candidates, and many in the audience, said it would, but only if the Tea Party advocates worked the system.
“I think we can do greater things working in a system that’s established than we ever can being a bunch of anarchists,” said Jennifer Turner Stefano, a vice president of a local Tea Party group who is contesting her local Republican committeeperson.
Ms. Stefano, a stay-at-home mother and former television reporter, will have to get 10 signatures and put her name on the ballot to run. But the National Precinct Alliance estimates that about 60 percent of the roughly 150,000 local Republican committee seats are vacant and can be filled by essentially showing up.
“Even if you’ve got a slight majority, you just need maybe 26 states, then you can have your say in how the party goes,” said Philip Glass, a former commercial mortgage banker in Cincinnati who is the national director of the precinct alliance.
The precinct strategy, like the Tea Party movement itself, has spread via the Internet, on sites like Resistnet.com. A National Tea Party Convention in Nashville next month will feature seminars on how to take over starting at the precinct level.
Advocates hold up the example of Las Vegas, where a group of about 30 people who had become friendly at Tea Party events last spring met to discuss how they could turn their crowds into political influence. One mentioned that there were about 500 open precinct committee positions in the local Republican Party.
They recruited other activists and flooded the committee — the Republican Party says it now has 780 committee people, up from about 300. In July, they approved a new executive committee, and Tony Warren, one of the organizers and a new precinct committeeman himself, said six out of seven executives are “constitutional conservatives,” in keeping with Tea Party ideology.
With the bulk of Nevada’s population in the Las Vegas area, the local committee was able to elect a conservative slate to the state party in December, including a state chairman who has said he wants to make the party “safe” for conservatives.
As recently as last spring, Mr. Warren said, “we didn’t even know how the darn party worked.”