The tea party movement, which shook up the national political debate in 2009, is setting higher goals for the new year. The anti-government activists aim to influence the 2010 elections, and Nashville could serve as their launching pad.
One of the movement's many affiliated groups, Tea Party Nation, is holding what it's billing as a national convention Feb. 4-6 at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel to begin organizing for election campaigns around the country. None other than Sarah Palin is headlining the event, with Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Tennessee's Rep. Marsha Blackburn also among the speakers.
"We can't just stand around holding signs," Tea Party Nation organizer Sherry Phillips says of the future.
Several groups already have formed political action committees to raise campaign cash. FreedomWorks, which helped organize many of last year's noisy tea party protests, says it will imitate Barack Obama's '08 Internet fundraising efforts.
"We're all looking to the elections," says Ben Cunningham, the anti-tax activist who spoke at state Capitol rallies last spring and summer. "People were really frustrated, and the protests were the way they expressed that. Now people are beginning to say, 'Hey, these rallies are fun but what's the next step? How do we affect the political process?' There are a lot of people getting involved."
The idea is to channel the movement's energy and outrage to candidates willing to take up the cause. But some activists worry that, in the process, the tea party might lose the diversity and spontaneity that attracted followers in the first place.
The tea party is far from cohesive. By one count, eight separate organizations make up the movement, and they sometimes compete against each other. Some tea party leaders are uncertain whether this unruly collection of activists can—or should—be organized into a unified force.
"If you get 10 tea party organizers in a room and try to tell them what to do, you're going to alienate nine of them, and the only one you won't alienate is yourself," says Ken Marrero, a conservative activist and blogger. "At its root, the tea party is really people who have had enough and decided to get involved. It's really a grassroots thing. If you are ever successful in creating a single tea party movement, you will have ruined it."
Cunningham agrees: "Our strength is our diversity, with so many people empowered to do so many different things."
"Many of these folks have repudiated party membership," Marrero points out—so why would they want to join a unified organization under the tea party banner? "They're looking for performance, not parties or politicians," he says.
Nationally, the Republican establishment has been hesitant to embrace tea party activists out of fear some of their beliefs might appear loopy to mainstream voters. But in Tennessee, Republicans have no such fussy qualms. Up and down the ballot, they are echoing tea party views.
Congressman Zach Wamp, who is running for governor, famously vowed (apropos of nothing) to meet President Obama at the state line if he should come to Tennessee to confiscate guns. Wamp and one of his rivals, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, constantly demand that the federal government recognize Tennessee's sovereignty under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution.
Last session, the legislature overwhelmingly adopted Rep. Susan Lynn's resolution demanding state sovereignty.
Lawmakers also approved the so-called Firearms Freedom Act, which purports to bar federal regulation of made-in-Tennessee guns and ammunition. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has since warned Tennessee's gun dealers in a letter that the law is meaningless.
Just before Christmas, Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, and another state lawmaker, Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, asked state Attorney General Bob Cooper to take "appropriate legal action" against the federal government if the health care bill becomes law.
"It is clear by the wording of the legislation itself that not every state would face a similar and equal burden," they wrote. "We see this as a violation of equal protection of the law, an affront to our sovereignty, and a breach of the U.S. Constitution."
Ramsey joined the calls for a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of health care legislation.
Last week, Lynn, who is running for the state Senate, upped the ante by saying she might introduce "nullification" legislation purporting to let Tennessee declare null and void any federal law the state deems unconstitutional. She said she would target the pending health care reform legislation as the first federal law to nullify.
Organized or not, the tea party movement is shaping the Tennessee political landscape for this year's elections.
"If political parties refuse to adopt the principles of lower taxes and less spending," Marrero says, "no one will have to figure out how to get the tea partiers involved. It's reached a critical mass, and it's not going away."
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