Since attorney Ted Cruz's victory in the Texas Republican primary for a Senate seat last week, Tea Party members across the country have been touting the strength of their conservative movement and its influence on the Republican Party. But don't expect much of a Tea Party celebration this month in Tampa, Florida, where beginning August 27 Republicans will hold their four-day national convention and formally recognize Mitt Romney as the party's presidential nominee.
Despite the continuing prominence of the loosely organized anti-tax, small-government movement that helped Republicans take over the U.S. House of Representatives two years ago, Tea Party activists and leaders say they are preparing for what amounts to a snub in Tampa.
The Tea Party continues to be a force in congressional and state elections, particularly in the South and Midwest. But Republicans' pending nomination of Romney – whose conservative credentials are questioned by many Tea Partiers – has led many in the movement to shift their focus from the presidential race. So when the nation's eyes are on Tampa this month, many Tea Party activists say their attention will be elsewhere, at dozens of state-level races where they say they can make a difference without having to hold their noses.
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Some Tea Party members see the convention as an exhibition of the Republican Party at its back-scratching, favor-dealing worst. "The Tea Party is not about cool cocktail parties with (Republican Party) chairmen," said Adam Brandon, executive vice president of FreedomWorks, a Washington-based Tea Party group.
That the convention will seek to enhance Romney's credibility makes matters worse for some Tea Partiers, whose suspicions of the former Massachusetts governor revolve largely around his signing a healthcare overhaul in his state that became a model for the program that Democrat Barack Obama put into place nationally as president. "Obamacare," as it became known, requires most Americans to buy health insurance, and is a policy that most Tea Partiers view as a budget-busting violation of individual rights.
So even as Romney declared himself to be "severely conservative" in front of a Tea Party-infused crowd in Washington in February, Tea Party members spent most of the presidential primary season backing Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, and Newt Gingrich, former House of Representatives speaker, as more conservative alternatives.
While they prefer him to Obama, many Tea Partiers will not vote for Romney, said Judson Phillips, a Tea Party leader from Nashville, Tennessee, who puts that figure as high as "one-third to one-half" of Tea Party activists. He warns that such people could vote for other conservatives on their November 6 ballots but skip Romney. "He's got a real activist gap that he needs to make up."
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The Tea Party scored another win in a high-profile race on Tuesday when one of its candidates, Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, defeated two other Republicans for the right to face Democratic Senator Claire in November. Akin's victory, and Cruz's success in Texas, highlighted the Tea Party's ability to influence statewide races – a success it has not yet attained in a race for national office.
So in effect, Akin and Cruz have given some conservative activists a reason to channel-surf when the Republican convention is on TV this month.
Tea Party members say they will be investing most of their energy on state and local races this fall, gravitating toward Republicans such as Cruz, Akin, Indiana U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, and Nebraska U.S. Senate candidate Deb Fischer.
In recent days, Romney has tried to draw on some of these candidates' insurgent appeal by appearing with Mourdock in Evansville, Indiana, on Saturday and including Cruz in a campaign telephone call for reporters on Tuesday. But several Tea Party leaders say Romney can't easily trade on their success. "I'm not going to go out and try to help him," said Allen Olson, a carpenter who is the founder of the Tea Party group in Columbia, South Carolina. Olsen said he and his fellow conservative activists have a message for Romney and the Republican Party: "Listen. Or else."
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Romney's supporters say his campaign is listening and is honing a message that mirrors the Tea Party's concern for limiting government spending and reducing deficits. "They know that they need to get the Tea Party people," said Gregg Keller, executive director of the American Conservative Union.
The convention's roster of speakers will be one sign of how seriously Republican leaders view the Tea Party. If Romney does not pick a Tea Party hero such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio or Kentucky Senator Rand Paul as his vice-presidential nominee, their presence on the rostrum during prime-time TV hours could help the presidential nominee. So far, Cruz, Rand Paul and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker are the most prominent Tea Party favorites to be given speaking slots, but it's not yet clear whether those speeches will be in the evening hours of TV's coveted prime time. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, another Tea Party hero, hasn't received a public invitation to appear at the convention.
At the same time, the Tea Party and Romney may be working at cross purposes, as conservative activists try to tug the Republican Party to the right while Romney strives to appeal to voters in the middle needed to win a national election. An ABC/Washington Post poll taken this spring indicated that passionate supporters of the Tea Party were outnumbered by strong opponents of the movement by 2 to 1.
Tea Partiers say their involvement with the Republican convention will be largely outside the arena in Tampa. Activists are staging a rally on August 26, before the convention begins officially the next day. Among the scheduled speakers are two Republicans who challenged Romney for the Republican nomination, pizza magnate Herman Cain and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
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Tea Party leaders also plan to petition party leaders who are responsible for drafting the party's platform, its statement of positions for the fall elections.
FreedomWorks will present ideas such as auditing the Federal Reserve and eliminating the Department of Education. "That's going to be a test. We will see how well we will be embraced or be told to pound salt," said Brandon, of FreedomWorks.
Members of the Republican platform committee say the panel will be receptive. "Everybody is going to be welcomed," said Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who co-chairs the committee. But some Tea Partiers aren't enthusiastic about influencing the Republican platform. "It's a piece of paper," said Olsen, a Tea Party leader in Columbia, South Carolina. "It doesn't mean squat."