Trying to Reinvent Itself Again, the Tea Party Gears Up for 2012

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House Majority Leader and FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey, center, and FreedomWorks CEO Matt Kibbe, right, at a Tea Party "Get Out The Vote" rally for Pat Toomey at SmokeEaters Pub in Philadelphia on October 12, 2010.

Like any group in its infancy, the Tea Party goes through phases. Gone, or at least temporarily shelved, are the noisy rallies, the tricorn hats, the abundant signage that marked its birth in 2009. “We are not a protest organization anymore,” says Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that trains Tea Party activists. On Monday morning, Kibbe was standing in FreedomWorks’ Washington office, an airy space decorated with campaign signs, movement memorabilia, and a Shepard Fairey-style likeness of Ayn Rand emblazoned with the word “Reason.” He was addressing a handful of press and about half of the 158 activists who came to D.C. from 40 states to attend a weekend “boot camp,” where they received briefings on issues like entitlement reform and the debt limit and “tactical training” on working for campaigns, social-media strategy and connecting with like-minded neighbors.

In Kibbe’s formulation, the Tea Party movement that swaggered onto the political scene in 2009 has evolved considerably. The movement “morphed into a get-out-the-vote machine” in 2010, Kibbe explained, which has since shifted “from a narrowly defined political space into a broader cultural space.” It contests judicial battles and recall fights, engages in issue advocacy, plants roots in local government. At the age of two-and-a-half, the Tea Party is sliding toward a more traditional influence model: “plain, simple, boots-on-the-ground,” says Ann Sullivan, the secretary of the Wayne County, N.C., GOP and a Tea Party activist who cut her teeth working for Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms.

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Or maybe not. The Tea Party is a little like iTunes, constantly touting its reinvention even as the product looks and sounds the same. The pillars of its philosophy haven’t changed. Activists want lower taxes, less regulations, a smaller and less profligate government. They still spend a lot of time talking about their liberty and the Constitution, which always seem to be under threat from nefarious Democrats. “I saw the emergence of a party that I thought was against the Constitution of the United States,” one activist said, by way of explaining his decision to get involved. They still harbor suspicions about the intentions of the press. One man, a North Carolinan named Ronnie Long, spent nearly a half-hour taping interviews I conducted–which Freedomworks apparently cited as a way to “protect yourself,” another activist said.

The Tea Party has always been easy to caricature but difficult to pin down. It is sprawling and diffuse, with millions of members animated by nearly as many different issues. Some are fixated on the nomination fight and the battle to unseat Barack Obama in 2012. “That’s the overriding issue,” says Jo Rae Perkins of Oregon, a Michele Bachmann supporter so far. Others are itching to flex their muscles in House and Senate races, where the Tea Party exerted its greatest impact in 2010, toppling Establishment Republicans in Senate primaries in Utah, Delaware and Florida and making gains in blue states like New York and Wisconsin. (A large delegation from Utah, many of whom helped upstart Mike Lee oust entrenched GOP Senator Bob Bennett, was on hand to take aim at their next target, Orrin Hatch. After the meeting, they trekked over to the offices of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, “Retire Hatch” placards in hand, to urge the group to stay out of the primary fight — all despite Hatch’s aggressive courtship of Utah Tea Partyers.) Still others were keen on fighting local issues, like Bob Koch, founder of the Montco Patriots from Montgomery County, Penn., who is working to drum up support for a school-choice bill.

(PHOTOS: Signs of the Tea-Party Protests)

Though the emphasis of their efforts varied, the activists had relatively uniform policy views. They want spending curtailed, the size of government whittled down. They do not want to see the debt-limit increased, and certainly not without the “Cut, Cap and Balance” approach pushed by groups like the Republican Study Committee, which has pledged not to vote for a debt-ceiling hike without “substantial” spending cuts next year, an enforceable cap on federal spending and the passage of a balanced-budget amendment, which the House and Senate are likely to vote on in late July.

“There are few moments when we can create real, structural change,” says Ryan Hecker, the Tea Party activist who helped devise the Contract From America. Hecker and others believe the prospect of default gives the movement leverage, and suggested that the conservatives who vaulted into Congress by embracing Tea Party tenets would be quickly ushered out if they failed to uphold their end of the bargain on the debt limit vote. He also said that presidential contenders would need to formally endorse the Contract From America in order to win support. “We’re not going to settle for vague rhetoric anymore,” Hecker said. “They need to sign onto a detailed plan.”

As for those presidential contenders, Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry (who hasn’t declared his intention to run) and Texas Representative Ron Paul appeared to place first, second and third in an impromptu voice-vote straw poll. The ad-hoc exercise seemed to reaffirm the conventional wisdom about the Tea Party’s stance on several candidates. Herman Cain drew boisterous applause but stray questions about his viability; Tim Pawlenty earned a polite reception with little enthusiasm; Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman drew a light smattering of boos and no’s; Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum sparked little in the way of a reaction at all. And nobody seemed particularly enthused about the prospect of a late entry into the race by Sarah Palin, whose supporters appear to have migrated to Bachmann. In an evolving movement, lurking on the sidelines for too long while your colleagues do battle can apparently have its consequences.

MORE: Can the Tea Party Movement Take the Next Step?