SHARONVILLE, Ohio – George Brunemann, president of the Cincinnati Tea Party, was apologetic but firm. Looking at the array of local Republican officials and candidates seated onstage behind him in the standing-room-only meeting hall of the Sharonville Convention Center, he announced that his efforts between now and November would be aimed at one place: Washington.
It was a small but potentially important moment in a small but potentially important place: Hamilton County, Ohio, is a swing county in a swing state. Many political observers believe it is one of a handful of counties that will determine the 2012 presidential election.
"Today’s rally is the start of something totally different,” Brunemann said Tuesday, announcing a collaboration between his tea party group and the local Republican Party.
The need for the tea party and the Republican establishment to put aside any differences, Brunemann said, became clear June 28, the day the U.S. Supreme Court upheld President Obama’s healthcare reform law.
"On June 28," Brunemann said, "the world changed. The Supreme Court failed to do their job. They failed to uphold the Constitution.
"The only thing that matters now is that we take back the Senate, the House and the White House. With apologies to the local candidates who I hope will follow on the coattails, that is the only thing in 2012."
The message resonated with the crowd of about 300. "That room last night, it surprised me," Hamilton County GOP Chairman Alex Triantafilou said Wednesday. He had expected a much smaller turnout. "It was a hot Tuesday night, the All Star game was on TV."
Unlike some other Ohio Republican officials, Triantafilou has always had a good working relationship with the tea party, but he acknowledged that the movement’s “rank and file” probably needed a little persuasion. “A lot of these guys are disaffected Republicans, but we’ve tried to integrate with them,” he said. “George’s message was, if you feel any division, let’s put our differences aside.”
The evening, sponsored by the Hamilton County Republican Party and the Cincinnati Tea Party, was ostensibly a rally for Josh Mandel, a rising young Republican star whose race against Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown has turned into a national fundraising contest.
Mandel is winning that part of the race. Outside groups have poured money into Ohio’s Senate campaign. Conservative groups have spent more than $10 million for Mandel, compared with about a quarter of that by groups supporting Brown.
Mandel, 34, an Iraq war veteran and Ohio’s treasurer, was introduced by a bona fide tea party star, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, whose victory over Utah’s veteran Sen. Robert Bennett at their state convention in May 2010 also signaled a change in the relationship between the tea party and the GOP.
Though many tea party supporters have been lukewarm about Mitt Romney, Lee was there on behalf of the Romney campaign, which has collaborated closely with Mandel.
Yet when Lee talked about “our movement,” it was clear to the crowd he was talking about the tea party, not the Republican establishment.
“There are a few people who want to believe that our movement is dead. This is not the beginning of the end.... This is only the end of the beginning,” said Lee, who dismissed the idea that the tea party had begun to fizzle after peaking in 2010 with a number of victories in the midterm election.
“What happens in 2012,” he said, “is gonna make what happened in 2010 look like a Sunday picnic."