A tea party rally in St. Louis in Sept. 2010 (Whitney Curtis/AP)
The 2010 midterm elections were marked by ubiquitous images of voters waving Gadsen flags in the sun, women with tea bags hanging from their hat brims, and determined men in Paul Revere costumes shouting proclamations.
What happened to those people?
If you ask the people who helped organize the tea party into a movement, they'll readily concede that tea party rallies this election cycle are not as prolific as they were in 2010. But they say they're doing one better this year: instead of simply rallying, they're organized and on the ground (and on the phone, in your mailbox and on your radio and television) in select states to try to elect tea party candidates to office and effect what they say is "real change."
"The movement has matured … and we're now tea party 2.0," Amy Kremer, the chairwoman of Tea Party Express, told Yahoo News. Kremer and other tea party leaders say that while the tea party rose to fame in 2010, that cycle was just a learning period for the movement.
"In 2010, we didn't have our feet under us," Brendan Steinhauser, the federal and state campaigns director of FreedomWorks, told Yahoo News. Instead of a "haphazard" plan, as he described it, 2012 will bring a "much more sophisticated approach."
The tea party in 2010 made headlines for its rallies, its anger and its energy. But its most lasting changes came in the form of getting tea party candidates elected to office, sometimes at the peril of establishment Republicans. The movement's leaders say they plan to do the same this cycle.
"Some folks think the tea party has gone away because they're not out seeing 5,000 at a time waving 'Don't Tread on Me' flags," Indiana Senate challenger and tea party candidate Richard Mourdock told Yahoo News last week. "But where they are are working as volunteers in campaigns like this campaign."
If Mourdock, the state treasurer, defeats Sen. Dick Lugar on May 5, he will largely have the tea party to thank.
His campaign fits the tea party narrative: the 36-year Senate veteran Lugar is being portrayed as too moderate for his state, having voted for the bailouts, for President Obama's stimulus bill, and to confirm Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Mourdock, who sued over the auto bailout, casts himself as a limited-government fiscal conservative.
Two years ago, tea party supporters in Indiana split between two candidates in the state's Senate Republican primary. In an example of how 2010 was a learning period for the movement, an umbrella organization called Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate was created to unify the tea party behind a single candidate.
Late last year, the new organization brought together 55 tea party groups across the state to endorse Mourdock.
"We were learning the process in 2010," Monica Bowers, who helped found the group, told Yahoo News of the tea party in general. "We were angry about what was going on, but we didn't know what to do about it."
She added, "Now we've gone into a working mode."
People from 47 tea party groups are expected to travel to Indianapolis on Saturday, according to Bowers, for an event to get out the vote for Mourdock ahead of Tuesday's vote.
A loss by Lugar would prove the strength of Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate to the state establishment as well as to the nation.
"It would be a victory for conservatism," Bowers said. "And for the heart and soul of the Republican party."
Their model for tea-party unity is being replicated in states like Michigan, Oregon and Iowa, Bowers said.
The leaders of national tea party groups, such as Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks, both of which endorsed Mourdock, believe a Lugar loss would immediately "send shockwaves" across the country, to use Steinhauser's words.
Amid the "media narrative: Is the tea party alive? This will put a temporary end to that discussion," Steinhauser said. "The tea party is alive and well."
Tea party supporters already achieved one important victory this year. Last month, tea party challenger Dan Liljenquist pushed longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch into a primary in Utah. Liljenquist and his team readily admit he now faces an uphill battle against a well-funded, well-known and experienced lawmaker in a statewide race, but his supporters say his victory was their first taste of winning this year.
"In Utah, people saw that the tea party was alive and well," Kremer said, adding that people now understand that for the tea party to survive, it must be part of the political process.
"If you want change, you have to change the players," she said.
The Tea Party Express, which is focused this year on helping Republicans win back the Senate, has endorsed five Senate candidates in addition to Mourdock: Ted Cruz in Texas; Sarah Steelman in Missouri; Jon Bruning in Nebraska; Josh Mandel in Ohio; and Tom Smith in Pennsylvania.
Steinhauser identified races in Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Missouri, Florida, and Maine among those states where FreedomWorks is active.
Both organizations have made the recall election of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker a major focus in the weeks ahead. A Tea Party Express email to supporters Thursday stated:
This election is not only a fight for Wisconsin. It's a fight for our conservative values nationwide. A win on June 5 will be a referendum on those trying to stifle the voice of the people and hand power back to the big-government public union bosses that want nothing more than complete control of a state's budget.
Walker, who became a national target of the left last year when he took on public employee unions in his state, faces a recall primary May 8 that he is expected to win handily. The real fight to hold his seat looms on June 5, when he faces a Democratic opponent.
The tea party regards the effort to recall Walker as unfair and unwarranted.
"It's one thing to recall somebody for not doing their job," Kremer said. "It's another to recall them if you have a problem with their ideology."
With the effort, money and energy the movement has put into Walker's recall, Mourdock's primary and other local elections this year, the tea party has effectively turned these races into the determining factor of whether it will be viewed as a major force in politics after 2012.
Even so, the Tea Party Express and select additional groups (but not all) plan to be involved in the presidential race even though Mitt Romney is not regarded as a tea party favorite.
"I will work my heart out," for whomever wins the nomination, Kremer said. "We can't afford another four more years of President Obama."
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