The tea party may have been built by the grass roots, but in order to survive, it's going to have to rely on the Beltway political machines and big money groups it once disparaged.
Tea party activists always worked alongside like-minded conservative organizations, but they failed to capitalize on the anti-Obama momentum in 2009 and 2010 to build their own infrastructure and war chests. That means national groups like American Majority, the Club for Growth and the Koch brothers-linked Americans for Prosperity are essentially in the position to determine if GOP incumbents face serious primary challenges.
Potential prime tea party targets include GOP senators up for reelection in 2014 -- Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Conservative activists would also love to hit back at the 33 Republican senators and 85 representatives who voted last week to raise taxes on the wealthy as part of a deal to avert the fiscal cliff.
The tea party "is in disarray," said Erick Erickson, the editor of RedState, a blog that helped crystallize the fiscally conservative ethos of the populist movement. Going forward, tea partiers will "either be within the conservative movement as part of that movement or they won't be effective."
Polls have shown Americans turning away from the tea party: 24 percent of likely voters considered themselves tea party members in April 2010, according to a Rasmussen survey. Now, only 8 percent say they're tea party members.
Many activists have moved on, while others have turned their focus to local and state fights, or become absorbed into the Republican Party. Those that remain are as divided as ever about candidates and strategies. And they mostly lack the cash and the organization to mount serious primary challenges on their own.
"There's not enough money, and I think the movement is a little split right now," said Billy Simons, a member of the board of the Charleston (S.C.) Tea Party.
"The grass roots are a lot more cynical than they were in 2010," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, a Georgia-based nonprofit that fashioned itself as an umbrella coalition of local tea party groups. "They only want to take actions that are going to have real impact, and not just something that is going to make noise for the sake of making noise."
Tea party activists may have "missed the moment" to build a more enduring structure that could help boost primary challenges to Republican congressional incumbents deemed insufficiently conservative on fiscal issues, said Ned Ryun, president of the grass-roots organizing outfit American Majority, which trained local activists and offered them grants and assistance in setting up their own groups.
"In some ways, one of the greatest strengths of the movement also became one of its greatest weaknesses, because it kept them from doing the kinds of things that are necessary to build the infrastructure. It's really a shame," Ryun said.
"I don't think we need some national group telling us what to do," said Simons, citing the Tea Party Patriots as one example. "I think the tea party is much more effective when individuals are taking their own action," he added. "I question the motives of some of those groups; sometimes I think they're more interested in themselves than in making a difference."
At the same time, Simons and other activists admit that winning takes money.
"If an incumbent who's not fiscally conservative is going to spend a million dollars, [a challenger has to] raise some reasonable percentage of those same numbers," said Mark West, president of the Chattanooga [Tenn.] Tea Party. "If it's going to come in from FreedomWorks, then so be it if they share our ideology."
Individual tea party groups might develop "strategic relationships" with groups like FreedomWorks, said Georgia Tea Party board member Tom Maloy. "They won't tell us who we should support or how we should support, and we don't tell them, either, but the one common thread, we all believe pretty much in the same thing," he said, citing individual liberty and constitutionally limited self-government.
Money is a problem for those looking to beat incumbents like Alexander, said Memphis Tea Party founder Mark Skoda. "There's nobody coming up who can beat him. Nobody's funded well enough," he said.
The fiscally conservative Club for Growth has a record of tipping primaries, and some tea partiers see it as their best hope of mounting viable 2014 tea party primary challenges. To defeat Graham, "it would have to be some serious outside money, and it would have to be one of these established groups like Club for Growth," Simons said.
"The beginning of 2013 feels a lot like the beginning of 2009," said Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller, citing the discussions over government spending and taxes. "Republicans are in disarray, and there is uncertainty about the path forward. But we believe that if Republicans adopt a pro-growth message, then they will have success at the ballot box."
Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-brothers-backed outfit that helped organize early tea party rallies, is planning an aggressive issue advocacy campaign around expected votes on fiscal issues in the coming months, which it hopes will provide "galvanizing moments to mobilize activists," said its president, Tim Phillips.
"After the election and the budget deal, there is a little bit disappointment and maybe even some confusion [among activists] about what to do next. But there is still a lot of fight there," Phillips said.
AFP is considering a range of possibilities for 2014 -- including becoming more involved in congressional primaries, Phillips said. Asked if that could include expressly supporting primary challengers for the first time, he said, "every option is on the table."
Ryun said there's been talk among national groups of trying to organize Kentucky grass-roots activists ahead of a possible 2014 primary against Senate Minority Leader McConnell, who negotiated the fiscal cliff deal with Vice President Joe Biden.
"But I think people have to be realistic about the work and the amount of money it would take to organize the type of robust county-by-county infrastructure necessary to go after someone like McConnell," Ryun said.
Ryun's American Majority outfit -- consisting of 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 nonprofits -- had a $5 million budget in 2012, and its (c)4 arm funded 28 field offices in six states in the run-up to Election Day.
Even the deeper-pocketed nonprofit advocacy groups are grappling with uncertainty that could limit their effectiveness.
AFP recently parted ways with a number of field staff, as well as chief operating officer Tracy Henke, according to sources. Plus, the sources say AFP's 2012 efforts, in which it spent $140 million on a combination of ads and on-the-ground organizing, are being reviewed as part of a broader Koch-network-wide audit that could result in funding changes in the billionaire brothers' political operation.
FreedomWorks, which played major roles in boosting tea partiers to upset GOP primary victories over establishment favorites in 2010 and raised more than $40 million between its three component committees in 2012, is dealing with a messy split among its top brass that could affect fundraising.
The national tea party groups are hoping to capitalize on the fiscal cliff vote to jump-start their efforts.
Tea Party Patriots sent out a fundraising email after the fiscal cliff deal passed pledging "to use this disaster to start more Tea Party groups across America," with the goal of "a local affiliate in every single congressional district in the country so that Tea Party members can organize and directly confront the politicians who are ruining our future."
A Patriots official has talked about finding a primary challenger for Chambliss for his vote for the cliff deal. The group raised $12.2 million in the 12 months that ended May 31, 2011, but until recently, it had steadfastly refused to engage in elections, arguing it could be more effective by advocating on issues.
Patriots' co-founder Martin said the group may launch a super PAC this year to engage in federal races and could have an impact in the primaries. "There were some large donors this past year who would have donated to us if we had a PAC," she said.
And Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer suggested that her group will support primary challenges to GOP senators who supported the cliff deal. "These votes are not going to be forgotten. We're paying attention," she told POLITICO. Her group raised $6.4 million in 2012 -- enough to make a major impact in a handful of races.
But if tea-party-backed challengers do manage to build a head of steam headed into primaries, they can expect to be met by more aggressive pushback from the Republican establishment than candidates like Indiana's Richard Mourdock faced in his successful 2012 primary or Delaware's Christine O'Donnell faced in her 2010 bid.
GOP-allied outside groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads outfits have signaled that they're prepared to spend in primaries on behalf of establishment-favored candidates to stave off challengers.
"It's important that the right candidates get nominated," said Fred Malek, who helps run American Action Network and Congressional Leadership Fund, outside groups linked to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). AAN has supported establishment candidates in primaries against tea party rivals, and Malek said "it's something we would consider doing more."
Skoda, the Memphis Tea Party founder, said activists understand they can't win every time.
"We can't have a bunch of Ted Cruzes all winning just because you want to," Skoda said. "Senate races are inherently difficult. We saw in 2008, we saw again in 2010 and just again in 2012, when some candidates are pushed into races, they imploded. They imploded because they're not ready for prime time."
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