MANISTEE, Mich./WACO,Texas/WASHINGTON -
Some Tea Partiers say they can pinpoint the precise moment when they made it clear to the Republican Party they had no intention of being its lapdog.On a bright, brisk afternoon in mid-February, with snow still thick on the ground from storms that had battered Washington the week before, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele met with more than 50 members of the Tea Party, the Twitter Age conservative movement that is reshaping the U.S. political landscape.Steele, RNC chairman since January 2009, had invited them to the plush Capitol Hill Club, built as a clubhouse for the party's top brass next door to RNC headquarters.
According to several accounts, not long into the meeting JoAnn Abbott, an activist from Virginia who calls herself the 'Tea Party Grandma,' raised her hand to ask a question.She asked about a web page on the RNC site where visitors could send their member of Congress a postcard with a tea bag. On the tag at the end of the string were the letters 'RNC.'"Respectfully, sir, while we do not have a trademark on the tea bag, you are well aware that people associate it with the Tea Party movement," Abbott, 50, recalls saying to Steele. "If you co-opt that image, you damage our brand and weaken our movement."
Lest there was any confusion, she added: "It does not belong to you, it belongs to us as an independent movement."Abbott said within an hour of the end of the meeting the page (www.teaparty.gop.com) was gone -- and the Grand Old Party was finally aware of conservative frustrations she and others felt with Republican leadership.
"The GOP now knows we're not asleep anymore," Abbott told Reuters. "The giant has been awakened."RNC officials said Steele, who according to Abbott and others agreed at the time to hold regional meetings with Tea Party groups around the country, was traveling and unable to comment for this story.
But on Fox News the day after the meeting, Steele described the meeting as part of a "healing process" with people disaffected with Republican leaders. Part of the process includes "acknowledging where we have gone wrong, where we have made the mistakes in spending, in growing the size of government, in stepping away from those very constitutional principles and values that have
certainly defined this party," he said.
Accounts of that February 16 meeting challenge a common perception that the Tea Party movement was founded, funded and dominated by the Republican Party. Most of them are current or former Republicans -- up to 80 percent or more, with the rest split between Democrats, independents and Libertarians. And the movement has received help from conservative groups like FreedomWorks, which has provided training and logistical support to Tea Party groups and hopes the movement will boost fiscal conservatives in congressional midterm elections.
But Tea Partiers insist that they are not beholden to the GOP and warn that Republican candidates counting on an endorsement from them in November may well be disappointed.Interviews with Tea Partiers across the country paint a picture of a genuine, amorphous, conservative grassroots movement united by three core principles: constitutionally limited government, free market ideology and low taxes.
The American Constitution is a rallying cry and many now dub themselves
They are angry not just at what they describe as the socialist policies of U.S. President Barack Obama. They also feel Republican politicians have betrayed the party's ideals. For many in the movement, purging the party of moderate Republicans is a major goal."I used to be a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. Now if we have a Republican lined up to come to our meetings, I don't even want to go," said Nate Friedl, 41, a member of the Rock River Patriots, a Tea Party group in southern Wisconsin.
Following a first year marked by protests, the movement is evolving. The political novices of a year ago are forming coalitions and learning how to change things from the ground up.After rallying against government bailouts and Obama's healthcare reforms, as well as mobilizing the vote for key electoral races such as Republican Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts in January, many Tea Partiers feel empowered.
"Tea Party people have realized that you cannot change the system by protesting on the outside," said Richard Viguerie, author of 'Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause.'
The movement is also debating whether to remain independent -- or stage a conservative takeover of the Republican Party. And some, a tiny minority, favor becoming a third party."The two-party system is too ingrained in America," said Rod Merrill, head of the Ludington Tea Party in western Michigan. "Every time someone has tried to form a third party, it has failed."