HONOLULU -- The Republican Party's flirtation this week with a proposal to punish GOP candidates who do not commit to a list of conservative principleswas about more than just purity. It was about winning over angry activists.
The dispute was the latest example of the party's uncomfortable relationship with the growing band of disaffected conservatives who make up the grass-roots "tea party" movement. These activists remain deeply distrustful of political parties, yet their swelling numbers have made them such a potent force that Republican officials believe the party's ultimate success in November's midterm electionscould depend on earning their support.
Even as Republicans were energized by recent victories, those gathered here for the Republican National Committee's winter meeting sought strategies to win the support of tea-party activists -- chiefly by making an issue of government spending.
On Friday, in a speech as the meeting drew to a close, RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele sought to link the GOP to the activists who revolted against President Obama's economic-stimulus and health-care reform efforts. He summoned the anger of tea-party members, waxing on about the "phoniness" of elected officials, saying the message from the American people is: "We are not happy, Washington, with you.
"The Democrats are daring the American people to stop them. They are playing with fire, and they are going to get burned. And we are going to help burn them," Steele said to loud applause from about 200 Republican leaders.
Steele pledged that the party will compete in every state in the midterm elections. "We began 2010 in the back yard of President Obama, where he was born," he said. "We will end the year in Illinois taking his Senate seat. . . . Today, the old map is being thrown out. We're going to drop it in the Pacific Ocean on our way home."
A day earlier, Steele told reporters that the party needs to appeal to grass-roots independents, but he said he did not want to "co-opt" the tea-party movement. "I'm looking to work with activist citizens who are mad, who are frustrated and angry about the direction they see the country going, who have at times had a beef with this party and how we have led or failed to lead in the past and how we now are working together to correct those missteps," he said.
Some conservative RNC members considered an ideological test of candidates the right vehicle. They believed the party could attract tea-party activists through a declaration of purity. But many members believed that the GOP would risk more by closing its tent to more-moderate voices.
James Bopp Jr., the Indiana conservative who proposed withholding party support from candidates who did not pass a purity test, withdrew his resolution Friday. And the RNC, without objection, passed a watered-down compromise that directs party leaders to consider whether candidates believe in key principles but imposes no penalties on candidates who do not.
Angry and mobilized
The tea-party activists have shown themselves to be mobilized, independent, angry and outspoken -- not just against Democrats but also the Republican establishment. The relationship between grass-roots activists and Republicans is so tenuous that tea-party groups sent Richard K. Armey, a former GOP House leader who has become one of the movement's most prominent voices, to Honolulu as a sort of diplomatic envoy.
Armey said in an interview that tea-party activists will gravitate toward Republican candidates only if the GOP shows it has been "rehabilitated" following almost a decade of increased government spending under President George W. Bush. "The Republican Party is on probation with us," said Armey, president of FreedomWorks, a conservative activist group. "We still have our hurt and our disappointments for their malfeasance of years not too recent, but we know that they are capable of representing the broad center of American politics and political values, which is freedom and fiscal responsibility."
These days, tea-party activists and Republicans are largely in sync ideologically, and they find common ground in their disapproval of Obama and Democratic congressional leaders. "The only difference between us and those protesters is we dress a little bit better," joked Katon Dawson, a South Carolina Republican.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) -- a heroine of the tea-party movement who is collecting a reported $100,000 to headline next week's Tea Party Nation convention in Nashville -- went so far as to suggest the GOP merge with the grass-roots movement.
"Definitely, they need to merge," Palin, now a Fox News pundit, said on the air Thursday. "I think those who are wanting the divisions and the divisiveness and the controversy -- those are the ones who don't believe in the message. And they're the ones, I think, stirring it up. We need to ignore that, and we need to forge ahead with a cohesive message."
But a merger has major obstacles -- not the least of which is that tea-party leaders want nothing to do with any political party.
"People are so angry they don't even want these political parties at their events," said Dale Robertson, president and founder of TeaParty.org, which he said has 6 million members. "I've been attacked viciously by Republican groups. They've called me all kinds of slanderous names."
Robertson said he has reached out repeatedly to Steele but has been rebuffed. "He hasn't called me back," Robertson said. "I find that disconcerting."
Armey said tea-party activists resented that some Republican officeholders disparaged them when they began organizing last winter. "They said we're not real, we're unpatriotic, we're cuckoo birds," Armey said. "And these people are about as normal as anybody under the sun."
Republican officials meeting here said the key to establishing trust with tea-party groups may be through individual candidates.
"I don't think we can broker any kind of deal between their national leadership and our national leadership that will bring thousands of tea-party voters to the Republican Party," said Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "These are smart people who make their own individual decisions as to who they'll support. . . . We have to win these votes candidate by candidate, race by race, state by state."