Can the Tea Party Have a Lasting Political Impact?

For Bill Hennessy, the biggest political upset in recent history began when some of his tea-party compatriots started talking about what they were doing for Christmas. It was late December 2009, and Hennessy, a volunteer organizer from the St. Louis tea-party group, was on what he describes as "an ad-hoc conference call" with activists from the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, a group that emerged after the first antigovernment protests last February. As the tea-party organizers discussed their holiday plans, Boston-based activist Brad Marston floated the idea that a certain Republican Senate challenger in Massachusetts might be worth some of their attention. "He just kind of threw him out there," says Hennessy, a business-marketing professional from the St. Louis suburbs. "He asked only that we make people aware of the race ... I don't remember his asking for any specific support for Brown." Within days, that conference call catalyzed the kind of chain reaction among plugged-in activists that would replicate itself across the country, ultimately helping to propel Scott Brown into office. By December 28, Hennessy had blogged about the race, and within 24 hours, Brown's campaign manager e-mailed him about more ways to get involved—information that Hennessy then passed on to some 2,800 tea partiers in the St. Louis area, a significant number of whom joined the grassroots army that fundraised, phone-banked, and tweeted the unlikely senator to victory.

The sudden swelling of conservative activism and grassroots mobilization seemed to emerge out of nowhere, catching more than a few Democrats by surprise. Raising some $13 million in total contributions—with more than $1 million per day pouring in during the final days of the candidacy, many in small donations—Brown's campaign fed off the fervor that grassroots activists helped drum up across the nation.

It would be a mistake to attribute Brown's grassroots support to a monolithic movement, given the highly decentralized, often fractious nature of the tea-party activists, who often seem to be united by little more than anti-establishment anger. But online channels have begun connecting more and more tea-party simpaticos across the country. The question now is whether will they become organized enough to form a lasting counterweight to the online liberal activists—from to blogs such as Daily Kos—who have coalesced in recent years to help propel Democrats, including President Obama, into office.

Though tea-party activists still tend to look askance at political professionals and the Republican Party as an institution, such veterans have provided strategic leadership, even on the grassroots level. In a movement that prides itself for being "leaderless," groups like the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition have drafted 28 local activists to form a "national leadership team" to sift through the noise. The group is spearheaded by Michael Patrick Leahy, a former delegate to the Republican Convention who had last agitated to elect Romney in 2008.

The group's habitual conference calls, however, have produced neither a set of Republican talking points nor a singular national agenda, but rather an opportunity for certain messages and calls to action to become amplified on a larger scale. "We have a healthy distrust of political folks, whether they're Republican or not—we tend to trust fellow tea-party organizers," says Hennessy. "It's like neighbors talking over a fence."

Other Internet-focused groups have carved out different niches to band together disparate activists—ranging from the more abstractly ideological American Liberty Alliance (ALA), to major hubs like ResistNet, which simply bills itself as across-the-board "patriotic resistance to Barack Obama's ideology and agenda."

"Our key role is information," says Eric Odom, founder of the ALA. "To be driving a narrative, spreading the message—that's the ultimately role of these groups ... otherwise you are going to try to lead people who don't want to be led."

Between such loose Internet coalitions and local tea-party groups, no single entity has an Organizing for America–style command center or an e-mail list of millions: Odom says his group reaches some 60,000 supporters, for example, while the St. Louis tea party typically sends alerts to a small fraction of that number. These heavily networked groups have certainly proven their ability to converge rapidly—as in the Brown race, and to a lesser extent, Doug Hoffman's unexpected challenge in New York's 23rd district last year—but only if the right cause emerges under the right conditions. "A single group with a list matters less," says Patrick Ruffini, a Republican new media consultant who assisted the Brown campaign. "These multiple groups all do their own thing, and they come together for certain purposes ... if there's a cause, a sense of urgency around a certain idea, like stopping the health-care bill, it will be there."

Such broad-scale networking opportunities have their offline analogues. Though many tea-party activists insist that the "revolution will not be organized," there will certainly be plenty of conferences along the way. This week's National Tea Party Convention in Nashville may have captured the most attention—given the controversy surrounding the event's hefty $549 admissions fee and Sarah Palin's keynote speech—but tea partiers have been attending lower-profile confabs across the country, often organized by long-established groups that have reached out to the tea-party grassroots. Chief among them is FreedomWorks, founded by former House majority leader Dick Armey in the 1980s. Despite its ties to the Republican power elite, FreedomWorks insists that it is simply a "one-stop service center" for training conservative activists, recently hosting a three-day leadership summit for organizers from 22 states in the afterglow of the Brown victory. That same January weekend, the Dallas-based nonprofit American Majority brought together more than 130 people from 38 states to "act locally, network nationally," offering online organizing, fundraising, and media training for newbie activists such as Stephani Scruggs, the Florida state coordinator for Glenn Beck's 912 Project, another group that's huddled under the tea-party umbrella. "We don't have any kind of training in this," says Scruggs, a mother of two who works part-time in software sales and consulting. "I probably helped my dad pass out fliers when I was six."

But even the immediate goals of the movement remain unclear, and many activists resist the idea of centralized organization or platform on principle. As a result, their political targets are all over the map. Some of the most prominent tea party–backed races in 2010 are primary challenges to established Republicans, such as Mark Rubio's race against Charlie Crist for the Florida Senate nomination and the host of conservative hopefuls lining up against Utah Senator Bob Bennett. The rifts between the anti-establishment grassroots and the Republicans—not to mention competition between different tea-party factions—make the unified conservative front that spontaneously materialized behind Brown look like it could be a spectacular one-off achievement.

In Virginia's 5th congressional district, for instance, no less than five local tea-party groups have railed against the moderate Republican candidate the GOP has put forward, pulling right-wing challengers with stronger conservative bona fides into the race. The split is a reminder that the grassroots base has hardly abandoned ideological purity tests. And it could be New York's Hoffman, not Brown, who ends up being the bigger harbinger for the 2010 elections: a tea party split with the GOP throws the election to the Democratic nominee, either by nominating an extremist insurgent as the Republican, or a third-party right-wing challenge splits the right-of-center vote.

"It's not winning if you're electing someone from [the GOP] who disagrees with you on everything," says Hennessy, defending the challenges to Republican incumbents. "We're in a period that's idealistic enough that we should support that most rightward candidate possible." But given broad spectrum of (mostly) conservative, anti-government malcontents who are now crowding under the tea-party banner, it's become even more difficult to discern what kind of platform that would be.

It could be even harder to convince the conservative grassroots to fundraise if there isn't a consensus about the most important electoral targets. A growing number of tea-party activists have launched their own political action committees. Odom's own Liberty First PAC, for example, attempts to channel the tea-party ethos by pledging not to back "any incumbents who support health-care reform, bailouts, TARP—it's very anti-incumbent, anti–Washington power," he says. Certainly, Brown's race proved that the fundraising streams are there to be tapped for individual candidates who can embody the tea-party zeitgeist—and have an opponent that activists can uniformly agree is worth taking down. But in the absence of a unified infrastructure or movement identity, it will be difficult to predict exactly when all the signals across such a disparate network will fire at the same time. "The sentiment is much stronger than the organization itself," concludes Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "Often what we're characterizing as [tea partiers] are angry independent voters who aren't connected by any infrastructure, but who share the sentiment."

The political volatility of the tea partiers also raises the question of how much staying power a movement based on "anti-incumbent, anti-Washington power" can have, particularly when such sentiments are so closely intertwined with the effects of the economic downturn. The current, near-unilateral opposition on the right to the Democrats' legislative agenda has at least given focus and direction to the tea-party agitations, making alliances easier to come by. Compare such efforts to the current state of the grassroots left: having lost Bush as their primary target, liberal activists have oscillated between conducting pressure campaigns to pass Democratic bills and joining the right-wing opposition against the Democratic agenda when they feel it has fallen far short of the reforms they desire. Should the tea- party activists lose their own oppositional momentum—if the economy turns around, or if the Democrats quickly lose their grip in Washington—the absence of a more constructive platform and a stable infrastructure could mean that the insurgent network could evaporate as quickly as it came. "I don't think you're going to see a big third party movement come out of this," says Erick Erickson, a prominent conservative activist and blogger. "If the big problems go away on spending and growing government, the tea-party movement may go away altogether."