As they opened their inaugural national convention here, Tea Party advocates from across the country declared that they would turn the grass-roots anger that burst onto the streets a year ago into real political power, wielding money and campaign infrastructure as well as sheer energy.
Organizers of the convention announced on Friday that they were forming a political action committee to raise money and provide political consulting and campaign management for Tea Party-approved candidates. The PAC, an offshoot of a newly incorporated 501c4 called Ensuring Liberty, will seek to raise $10 million this year to spend in races in the 2010 Congressional elections.
To start, it will back conservative challengers in five races in the South. In the most highly visible, organizers want to run a candidate against Senator Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat who has been under fire for her votes on health care legislation. In the coming weeks, organizers said they would identify another 15 or so races for Tea Party-backed challengers.
“Let us not be naïve here,” said Mark Skoda, leader of the Memphis Tea Party and a spokesman for the convention, who said he would be president of the PAC. “The notion of holding up signs does not get people elected.”
In sessions here, organizers also urged fellow advocates to focus on getting like-minded conservatives elected in primaries in the next several months, so that Tea Partiers would not end up in the general election in November with a choice between a Democrat and someone they would define as a Republican in name only. And they outlined plans to take over the Republican Party from the ground up by having Tea Party conservatives fill local Republican committee slots with the power to decide which candidates to endorse and finance.
Mr. Skoda said the Ensuring Liberty PAC would choose candidates based on their fidelity to what he called the “first principles”: less government, fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, states rights and national security.
Across the country, Tea Party advocates have debated the merits of starting a third party, based on the protests that broke out starting a year ago over government bailouts, the federal stimulus and health care legislation.
Mr. Skoda said he did not support a third party. “We’re not attempting to replicate the R.N.C., we’re not attempting to co-opt the R.N.C.,” he said, referring to the Republican National Committee. Still, candidates elected with PAC support would be expected to caucus around those first principles in Washington, he said, and if they did not, “We vote them out.”
Six hundred advocates had gathered for the convention at the Gaylord Opryland here, a small fraction of the millions that Tea Party advocates say turned out for protests over the last year. Many not attending said they were put off by the ticket price to the convention — $549, plus fees, hotel and transportation. (Another 500 people, organizers said, bought $349 tickets to hear Sarah Palin, who is to be the keynote speaker on Saturday night.)
The convention reflected some of the fractiousness of the Tea Party movement. It was sponsored chiefly by Tea Party Nation, a for-profit social networking site, something like Facebook for Tea Partiers. Other sponsors and participants had pulled out as recently as two days ago, citing concerns about profiteering, and sending organizers scrambling to fill positions on some discussion panels.
Tea Party Patriots, another social networking site with ties to FreedomWorks, the Washington advocacy powerhouse led by a former House majority leader, Dick Armey, had sent its members a note last month saying that it would not support the convention because of the high ticket prices. It recommended “thoroughly researching the convention before purchasing a ticket.”