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'Tea party' activists filter into GOP at ground level

The conservative movement is urging its members to seek positions as Republican precinct representatives. Their goal is to remake the party - and U.S. politics - from within.

February 15, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey
  • The National Tea Party Convention this month drew a range of activists. Some in the movement are leery about working with the GOP.
The National Tea Party Convention this month drew a range of activists.… (Christopher Berkey / European…)

Reporting from Washington — First there was the "tea party" protester. Now meet the Tea-publican.

Conservative activists who once protested the political establishment are now flooding the lowest level of the Republican Party apparatus hoping to take over the party they once scorned -- one precinct at a time.

Across the country, tea party groups that had focused on planning rallies are educating members on how to run for GOP precinct representative positions. The representatives help elect county party leaders, who write the platform and, in some places, determine endorsements.

"That's where it all starts. That's where the process of picking candidates begins. It's not from [GOP leader] Michael Steele's office down. It's from the ground up," said Philip Glass, whose National Precinct Alliance is among the groups advocating the strategy. "The party is over for the old guard."

In Arizona and Ohio, Republican Party officials report an increase in candidates running for precinct positions, which often sit open because of a lack of interest.

In South Carolina, a coalition of tea party groups has made a formal agreement with the state GOP to urge its members to get engaged at the precinct level.

In Nevada, a group of "constitutional conservatives" working under the tea party banner has already taken control of the Republican Party in the Las Vegas area, gaining enough strength to elect six of the seven members of the county executive committee.

Glass' group and others say their work is nonpartisan; their hope is that people will reshape both major political parties. But for most of the small-government conservatives of the tea party movement, the Republican Party is a more natural fit.

The shift to local party politics is a notable turn for the group, which emerged in opposition to national financial bailouts supported by both parties.

But protesting has its limits, said Darla Dawald, national director for a conservative social networking site, ResistNet.com, that is directing people to local party contacts. The protests were a way to "catapult people off their couches. But then we needed to give them something to do, a way to get engaged."

Dawald took a look at her own precincts in Arizona's Pinal County. She said only 40% of precinct committee positions were filled. In Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, only 30% of the positions were occupied, she said. Dawald, who owned a gift shop that had closed in the recession, said it looked to her like no one was minding the store.

"It's not like we're going in and replacing people. We're going into positions that are open, things nobody is doing," she said. "It was clear that a small group of people within the party were making decisions for everyone."

After several months of organizing, Maricopa County now has 50%, or about 3,000, of its precinct committee positions filled.

In Nevada's Clark County, the number of occupied precinct slots has swelled from roughly 200 to nearly 1,000, party officials said. Party meetings that were once held in conference rooms have been moved to casino ballrooms.

Many Republican Party leaders have welcomed the activity, particularly because they worried that the energy driving the tea party movement might create a third party that would split the conservative vote.

That scenario played out in New York's 23rd Congressional District in a special election last year, a cautionary tale in Republican circles because it led to a Democrat capturing a longtime GOP House seat. The precinct strategy is a sign that tea party activists are finding a home -- or in many cases are willing to return to a home -- in the GOP.

"We believe we have a whole lot more in common than not," said Patrick Haddon, the Republican Party chairman in Greenville, S.C. "We believe we can help each other. They know what they believe, they're passionate about it, they can organize. And we have a lot of experience in how elections are run and how campaigns are run."

The South Carolina GOP announced at a news conference last week that it had reached an agreement to work more closely with the Upcountry Coalition of Conservative Organizations, a collection of tea party groups in the state. Under the deal, the coalition will help the party rebuild at the precinct level. The party agreed to support fiscally conservative candidates. Haddon will act as a liaison between the groups.

But some reaction to the agreement shows how many in the tea party are still skittish about associating with the GOP -- or worse, being viewed as a party appendage.

After state party Chairwoman Karen Floyd described the agreement on television, activists cried foul, saying she had left the impression that the party and the tea parties had merged. Coalition spokesman Harry Kibler said he felt "betrayed" and "used."

Another news conference was called to clarify the terms.

"We are independent. We will remain independent. And we will vote for the most conservative candidates regardless of party," Kibler said Friday.

khennessey@tribune.com

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