MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina (Reuters) - For insight into the conservative Tea Party movement’s battle plan in 2012, check out Joe Dugan’s Google spreadsheets.
Dugan, 66, a retired manufacturing executive and chairman of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party, is particularly proud of the scoring system he’s devised for South Carolina legislators. Every vote by a member of the state’s House or Senate is recorded, with points awarded for those that reflect the conservative position.
“Let’s say you get above a five, we’ll actively campaign for your reelection,” Dugan says. “Below a three, then - Republican or Democrat - we’ll come after you.”
In 2010 the Myrtle Beach Tea Party backed 10 Republican candidates for state and local offices - from school board to governor. All ten won, including sitting Governor Nikki Haley, U.S. Senator Jim DeMint and Myrtle Beach freshman Congressman Tim Scott.
This year, when South Carolina gained a seventh seat in the House of Representatives based on the 2010 U.S. Census, Dugan’s group successfully lobbied for the new district to be in their area and is now vetting candidates.
The group has also been actively courted by most of the Republican presidential candidates, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who appears with Dugan in a number of photos in the Tea Party activist’s study.
“The Tea Party movement is more organized, more focused and more potent,” said Rep. Scott, who talks regularly to Dugan. “What happened in 2010 was not the end. It was just the beginning.”
Tea Party supporters now hold fewer sign-waving rallies, a hallmark of their early opposition to bank bailouts and President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform in 2009. But the movement isn’t losing steam.
Interviews with activists across 20 U.S. states indicate that Tea Party groups, far from fading, have evolved into an increasingly sophisticated and effective network of activists. They are working to unseat establishment Republicans who they believe have betrayed the principles of lower taxes, limited government, and free markets.
“Those who think the Tea Party is on the wane are in for a gigantic surprise in 2012,” says Debbie Dooley, co-organizer of the Atlanta Tea Party. “We have built a grassroots army and we will be a fine-tuned machine next year.”
The goal of these loosely affiliated but fiercely independent groups nationwide is to hone their electoral skills and build a “farm team” of public officials who can ascend through the ranks of government. It’s a long-term strategy that looks past the 2012 election to a takeover of the Republican Party and the Congress.
“The Tea Party was a very showy populist movement in the last cycle,” said Steven Schier, a politics professor at Carleton College in Minnesota. “Now they are in the trenches and institutionalizing their efforts.” Some call the new push Tea Party 2.0.
Instead of organizing demonstrations, an unpaid army of managers, small business owners, and stay-at-home moms is learning how to get out the vote, raise money and set up political action committees. They are working to overcome the territorial rivalries that dogged the Tea Party in 2010, when groups backed multiple primary challengers and often allowed the establishment candidate to win.
Because the Tea Party energy produced a larger than usual turnout for a mid-term election, however, the young movement propelled the Republican Party to the biggest midterm swing since 1938, with a mad scramble to staff phone banks and knock on voters’ doors.
“We came to the game late last time,” says Bob Orbin of the Northeast Pennsylvania Tea Party, who is a vice president at an investment advisory firm. “It was sheer craziness. We’re light years ahead of that now.”
One thing the activists have learned is that they must unify behind one candidate rather than let a number of conservative contenders split the vote. A Tea Party coalition has already done this in Indiana, where they hope to unseat six-term incumbent Senator Richard Lugar. Some groups in the state’s 8th district have already backed a challenge to first-term Congressman Larry Bucshon.
Bucshon ran on Tea Party principles last year, but then disappointed conservatives by voting to raise the debt ceiling and to approve the compromise 2011 budget. Both Lugar’s office and Bucshon’s office declined to comment for this article.
Tea Partiers are keen to avoid embarrassments such as Christine O’Donnell’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid in Delaware last year. They now realize that the higher the office, the more they need someone with a political track record, name recognition, fund-raising ability and organization.
To make sure there are qualified candidates in the pipeline, Tea Party groups around the country are recruiting candidates for lower offices with the aim of producing qualified politicians for Congress in 2014 and beyond.
“We’ve had to learn a lot of patience,” said Karen Hurd of the Virginia Tea Party Alliance. In her state, Republicans failed to win outright control of the state Senate in November, yet Tea Party-backed candidates did win races further down the ticket. The Mechanicsville Tea Party, for instance, backed five successful supervisory board candidates in Hanover County.
But Tea Party groups have also lost the benefit of surprise, which some observers credit with their unexpected impact on state and local races in 2010.
“While the movement is significantly better organized than it was in the last cycle, the establishment is much better prepared for them,” said Dan Schnur, an expert in political strategy at the University of Southern California who worked on Republican Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.
“That could limit their impact.”
According to a Reuters/Ipso poll this week, 43 percent of Republicans either identify (23 percent) or identify strongly (20 percent) with the Tea Party. Among all Americans those figures are: identify 13 percent, strongly identify 10 percent.
“The Tea Party still don’t seem to be in a majority position in the electorate,” said James Henson, a politics professor at the University of Texas in Austin.
“The question is whether there will be uneven voter mobilization in the primaries. Will moderate Republicans show up in greater numbers? There is a lot of cleavage within the Republican Party at the national level, but the Tea Party may meet more resistance this time.”
The key to the Tea Party’s grassroots strategy is to master the mechanics of state and local politics.
Last year Catoosa County Tea Party member Keith Kenney - who works for a tile maker in northern Georgia - was elected as a Republican precinct chairman in his county.
“If you’d told me two years ago I’d be a precinct chairman,” he says, “I’d have said, ‘what are you smoking?’”
The precinct delegate system is the basic building block of America’s two-party system. The average precinct has 1,500 voters and the main job of delegates (who have different titles in some states) is to get out the vote.
They also choose party county representatives, who select state representatives and so on up.
But Republicans have long relied on well-funded campaign advertising to win elections instead of a precinct ground game. So the party’s precinct system was so atrophied in many places that Tea Party activists were easily elected delegates in 2010.
Once elected, Kenney compiled a PowerPoint presentation for delegates based mostly on Democratic Party literature (Democrats have traditionally had a better ground game). Now, using this or similar playbooks, Tea Party precinct delegates in many states are working on “walking lists” for their 2012 get-out-the-vote drives.
Tom Hartwell is running for circuit court clerk in Illinois’ Kane County. Addressing a crowd of local conservatives at a restaurant in St. Charles last month, he pledged to tackle waste at the clerk’s office, which has an annual budget of around $50 million and 127 employees.
Hartwell’s brother Todd, a member of the Elgin Tea Party Patriots, persuaded him to run. Much as major-league sports franchises nurture talent in minor-league farm teams, “we’re looking for the right conservatives to get them in at the ground level, then move them up,” said John Carlson of St. Charles We The People, which organized the fundraiser for Hartwell.
In states such as California, with its liberal bent and new open primary system, that can mean recruiting small-government “blue dog” Democrats instead of Republicans.
“Yes, we do exist,” said Leslie Eastman, a Democrat and member of the SoCal Tax Revolt Coalition in San Diego, with a laugh. She backs candidates such as John Chiang, California’s Democratic state controller, whom she views as a fiscal conservative.
In most states, though, the Tea Parties’ activism is aimed squarely at opposing mainstream Republicans such as U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is up for reelection in 2014. By then, Joe Dugan in Myrtle Beach points out, the state’s four conservative freshmen Congressmen will have held national office for four years and be ready to mount a challenge.
Similarly, activists in Georgia say they have some challengers in mind for Republican U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss in 2014. Georgia Tea Party supporters flexed their muscle in May when they rejected Governor Nathan Deal’s choice for chairman at the Republican state convention and elected their own candidate.
Tea Party groups in many states are also forming political action committees, or PACs, to raise money for candidates. For instance, the Southwest Michigan Patriots have formed TeaPAC to bankroll rural get-out-the-vote drives.
“There are donors out there who’d rather give to the Tea Party than to the Republican Party because the Republican Party doesn’t spend it right,” said Patriot leader Gene Clem. TeaPAC is soliciting corporate donations and would like to partner with Brighton, Michigan-based RetakeOurGov, which has its own modest PAC for donations to state and national races.
Some Tea Party groups have decided not to endorse or officially campaign for candidates, although individual members are free to do so. Instead, they vet candidates, educate the public about their voting records and lobby lawmakers about upcoming legislation.
They also work directly on the issues that matter most to each group - be they taxes, immigration, collective bargaining rights, gun laws, healthcare reform, voter identification or access to abortion.
The Tea Party’s growing electoral savvy was on display when Ohioans went to the polls on November 8.
National media focused on a multi-million dollar proxy battle between Republican Governor John Kasich and labor groups over collective bargaining rights - a fight labor groups won by a landslide - and paid little heed to another item on the state ballot: The Ohio Healthcare Freedom Amendment.
Placed on the ballot by Ohio Liberty Council, a Tea Party umbrella organization, the measure amends the state constitution to forbid a so-called individual mandate, which would require every individual to have insurance - a central feature of President Obama’s healthcare reform.
With a $700,000 budget the Council hired a small professional campaign staff for three months, went door to door statewide and hit the phones. The amendment won by a two-to-one margin.
The win was dismissed as symbolic because federal law supersedes state law, but that misses the point, said Chris Littleton of the Ohio Liberty Council.
“We showed what boots on the ground can do,” he said. “This was never about superseding federal law. This was about boosting our case when Obamacare goes to the Supreme Court.”
The Court will hear a challenge to Obama’s healthcare reform during 2012.
The Ohio healthcare campaign demonstrated “a degree of sophistication a lot of movements have never achieved,” said Carlton College’s Schier. “People should take note.”
In 2010 Indiana was a poster child for the Tea Party movement’s dysfunctional electoral debut. Groups across the state backed four different conservative candidates against Dan Coats, the establishment Republican Party candidate for retiring Senator Evan Bayh’s seat.
Coats won the primary with 39 percent of the vote. In 2012 Tea Party activists are targeting Senator Richard Lugar, and they won’t make the same mistake again. Conservatives dislike Lugar’s votes for the 2008 bank bailout, his co-sponsorship of the Dream Act - which would have created a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who serve in the military or attend college - and above all his confirmation of President Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees.
“For a long time Senator Lugar did serve us well, but he has drifted too far to the left,” said Monica Boyer, the co-founder of Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate.
Most of the state’s Tea Party groups met in January and agreed they needed to coalesce around one candidate. In September they organized a statewide convention and held a straw poll to choose Republican State Treasurer Richard Mourdock as Lugar’s first primary challenger since 1976.
Conventional wisdom holds that Lugar should win because of name recognition and the $3.8 million war chest he had at the end of the third quarter, dwarfing Mourdock’s $290,000.
“We know this is going to be a hard fight,” said Greg Fettig, a landscaping business owner who co-founded Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate with Boyer.
“But if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”
Brian Vargus, a politics professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said to beat Lugar the Tea Party must “mount a tremendous ground attack.”
Volunteers for Mourdock have been knocking on voters’ doors statewide since October. Lugar’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
In mid-November, Boyer and Fettig met Tea Party leaders in DeWitt, Michigan, to describe how they had united against Lugar. Ten Republicans have filed papers in the race to run against Michigan’s Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow in 2012. This meeting was billed as a first step toward getting together behind one of them.
Wrapping up an impassioned speech, Fettig got a standing ovation when he said, “To quote our Founding Fathers, unite or die.”
The speech convinced Wes Nakagiri of RetakeOurGov of the importance of getting together behind a single candidate. “I think our group could accept our second or third choice if that’s what it took,” he said.
Twenty-three of 33 seats in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate are up for grabs next year. Republicans need to win only four of those seats to gain the majority, which has made Senate races a primary focus of Republican Party activists around the country.
“Republicans are not sure yet they can beat Obama, so they’re focusing on the Senate,” said Republican strategist and CivicForumPAC chairman Ford O’Connell. Last year his PAC supported the successful campaigns of Florida Governor Marco Rubio and Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Toomey.
Now, in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, conservative donors are waiting to see if Tea Party groups can coordinate their efforts, O’Connell said.
“If they can unify behind viable candidates, more money will flow to those candidates,” O’Connell said. “The big question is, can they get there?”
And if they can, the next big question is what happens to the Grand Old Party. If Republicans hold the House, win the Senate, and perhaps even take the White House, that will set the stage for a Tea-Party driven “bloodletting”, predicts Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report newsletter.
“What many people don’t understand,” Tucker Carlson, the conservative editor of the Daily Caller, said, “is the Tea Party is a pure populist movement against the Republican establishment.”
(This story corrects the name of the university in the 22nd paragraph.)
Additional reporting by David Morgan