LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (Reuters) - After a string of setbacks and losses, the insurgent Tea Party movement is at a crossroads, between learning to live within the Republican Party or pursuing its fight against those it sees as not conservative enough.
The choice is an easy one for Tea Party activists, who vow to keep up their campaign to vote out of office those Republican politicians they say have betrayed the tenets of the conservative cause - smaller government and less federal spending and taxes.
Voters nationally blame October's partial government shutdown on Republicans, and particularly the Tea Party, which lost elections earlier this month in Virginia and Alabama.
With important mid-term congressional elections coming in November 2014, the Tea Party is under pressure from within the Republican Party to call off their insurgency and focus on the end game of defeating Democrats, rather than bruising primaries to clobber Republicans, some of whom could be in close contests to keep their seats.
Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said the Tea Party movement needs to decide its long-term strategy.
"Are they interested in toppling Republicans or winning elections? If they don't win some elections they're probably going to die on the vine," O'Connell said.
A series of interviews with Tea Party activists preparing for 2014, mainly in southern states, produced a clear consensus of the path forward, with possibly unsettling implications for Republican incumbents.
While mainstream Republicans nationally see the crisis of President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul as their ticket to success next November, Tea Party activists see Republican leaders' decision to end the shutdown in October as a betrayal of the fight over healthcare reform, best met with primary challenges next spring.
"The Tea Party won the 2010 election for the Republicans," said Debbie Dooley of the Atlanta Tea Party. "We took a back seat in 2012 and the Republicans lost. We're not going to make the same mistake in 2014."
The national criticism of the movement is failing to change many minds in the movement, either.
"If we have to get hurt in the polls in order to save the country from financial ruin, so be it," said Ben Cunningham, a long-time conservative activist in Tennessee involved in efforts to find a challenger for Senator Lamar Alexander.
Tea Party-backed primary challengers are running in South Carolina against Senator Lindsey Graham, a frequent target of Tea Party ire for his ability to compromise, and Alexander in Tennessee. There are also right-wing challenges to Senator Pat Roberts in Kansas and Thad Cochran in Mississippi. The Senate seat in Georgia left open by the impending retirement of Saxby Chambliss has a field of candidates vying for the mantle of most conservative.
For many grassroots conservatives the main target is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. McConnell is well known for vowing to make Obama a one-term president, but his record of brokering deals with Obama has incensed the Tea Party.
"There are many important races in 2014 that deserve attention," said David Adams, president of Kentucky Citizens Judicial, a group suing Kentucky's Democratic Governor Steve Beshear over the implementation of Obama's health care law. "But in terms of taking off the head of the snake, Kentucky is it."
In Kentucky and elsewhere, some of the Tea Party's challenges are perennial: they lack name recognition, the benefits of incumbency, and their rivals raise millions of dollars to their thousands.
What Tea Party activists have on their side is cheap get-out-the-vote technology, motivated volunteers, and enough past success to provide a roadmap for would-be candidates. In Kentucky, for instance, many Tea Partiers united early around a candidate, and started campaigning early, following the lead of Ted Cruz of Texas, who came from behind to win a U.S. Senate seat.
BACKING ONE HORSE
A national Quinnipiac University poll published November 13 found 47 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the Tea Party, the highest percentage yet. Other national polls have also shown a drop in popularity for the movement.
But unlike the Republican Party's national structure, the Tea Party has become an increasingly regional phenomenon, at its strongest in Republican dominated states like Georgia or in a few battleground states like Ohio.
Of 80 Republican House members who wrote to John Boehner in August arguing the House Speaker should threaten a shutdown over the healthcare law known as Obamacare, 13 represent districts in Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina.
"There are parts of the country geographically and sociologically that continue to feed the Tea Party phenomenon," said James Henson, a politics professor at the University of Texas in Austin. "I'd be surprised if recruitment wasn't up."
While some senior Republicans in the U.S. Senate say House Republicans and senators Cruz and Mike Lee of Utah fought a useless, self-punishing fight over the government shutdown, conservatives say were close to victory undermining Obamacare when moderate Republicans undermined them.
The Tea Party also pins the narrow November 5 defeat of conservative Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia's gubernatorial race on the refusal of the Republican establishment to back him.
The challenge is daunting in Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina where McConnell, Alexander and Graham all have a big advantage in raising money. McConnell, for instance, had $10 million cash on hand at the end of September. His opponent, moderately wealthy businessman Matt Bevin, had raised less than $900,000, more than two thirds of which was his own money.
McConnell had a 33 point lead over Bevin in one poll. The Senator has focused his campaign on Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, with whom he was tied, according to polling.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said it is hard to see the challengers in Kentucky, Tennessee or South Carolina being able to win, but that Cruz's long slog ahead of the Texas primary showed a challenge could develop late.
"The best you could say at the moment is the jury is out," he said.
Tea Party activists in Kentucky and Tennessee have carefully studied the playbook adopted by activists in Indiana in their successful bid to oust former Republican Senator Richard "Dick" Lugar in 2012. The key to primary victory involved getting behind a single challenger in state treasurer Richard Mourdock and going door to door for months ahead of the election -- well ahead of traditional campaigns.
Many Tea Party activists have rallied behind Bevin in Kentucky. Speaking at his home in Louisville in October, Bevin said he would have favored the government shutdown. McConnell's team says voters will favor politicians who get things done.
Bevin said his race against McConnell would be won "from the bottom up" by grassroots activists and compared his opponent to the emperor with no clothes, lacking real Republican values.
"If this naked emperor can be exposed, any one of them can be exposed. If we can do this at the ballot box, none of them are safe and we can send them home one at a time," he said, invoking other Tea Party challenges gearing up.
Activists are already going door to door for the primary election in May, using get-out-the-vote software provided free of charge by Kansas-based group the Madison Project, and Tea Partiers in Tennessee are using similar technology.
"The only energy in the Republican Party at the moment lies in the Tea Party," said Randy Keller of the Bowling Green Southern Kentucky Tea Party, a conclusion some political analysts reach as well.
"The lack of a ground game is a particular point of vulnerability for Republicans like Mitch McConnell," said Steven Schier, a politics professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. "The question is can they compete at the ground level?"
BOON FOR DEMOCRATS?
With bruising primary contests likely in key states, one question is will the winner be able to win the general election.
In Indiana's primary last year, Mourdock beat Lugar but lost in the general election in a reliably Republican state.
In Kentucky's 2011 gubernatorial election, the candidate backed by Tea Party activists lost in a hard-fought primary, and many frustrated conservatives stayed home on election day, contributing to the re-election of Democrat Beshear.
The Bowling Green Southern Kentucky Tea Party's Keller is no fan of McConnell's but he worries that widespread dislike for McConnell among conservatives could favor the Democratic candidate on election day in 2014.
"I would really rather not see that happen because even a flawed Republican would be better than a Democrat," he said.