Tea Party radicals gear up for 2010 elections

Organizers of the conservative Tea Party movement are forging plans to translate the anger that fueled nationwide anti-tax rallies and town hall protests into an electoral force that can boot incumbents in next year’s midterm elections.

Their targets range from big names like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to county assessors.

The East Bay Freedom Fighters, a Tea Party group based in the Pleasanton area, is already vetting 43 Bay Area candidates, many of them first time office-seekers. Other branches in California are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would restrict the political clout of unions.

Those sympathetic to the Tea Party and the 912 Project – nine principles and 12 values including God, marriage, freedom, honesty and thrift – trumpeted by Fox News commentator Glenn Beck are forming political action committees and rallying around screenings of the newly released “Tea Party: The Documentary Film.”

But the biggest challenge facing the movement is how to organize hundreds of local groups, and dozens of Tea Party leaders nationwide with divergent interests, into a force that can influence elections – and how to fund that effort.

“It’s a hard question to answer,” said Mark Meckler, a Grass Valley (Nevada County) attorney who is a national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, which claims to reach 15 million people nationwide. “We are a leaderless movement and that’s a good thing. I don’t think you’re going to see a unified movement yet.”

Tea Party organizers acknowledge that most people in the movement are conservative but the group is open to supporting candidates of any party – even conservative Democrats – who adhere to their message of limited government.

There is a growing impatience brewing nationally. More people (23 percent) supported a generic Tea Party candidate than a Republican (18 percent) in a Rasmussen Poll released last week, while 36 percent of those surveyed supported a Democrat. The rest were undecided.

GOP reaching out

“Any incumbent is in trouble,” said Sharon Ferrell, who chairs the East Bay Freedom Fighters, which claims 150 members.

While the California Republican Party initially distanced itself from the Tea Partiers, it is looking for ways to include them at their convention in March, and plans to meet with local groups in January, state GOP Chief Operating Officer Brent Lowder said.

“If we were arrogant and assumed they were with us, that could be deadly,” Lowder said. “We are ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them.”

Disappointment in race

But there is “zero excitement” in the Tea Party for any of the three Republican candidates for California governor, said Joe Wierzbicki, the Sacramento-based national coordinator for the Tea Party Express, a bus tour that held 90 rallies nationwide.

Next year, the group hopes to raise at least $5 million to focus on 15 to 20 congressional races, particularly on Reid’s, Wierzbicki said.

“There are two battles that are going to happen for the Tea Party, and one is over the Republican Party,” he added.

While some Tea Party supporters disparage President Obama as a “socialist,” and compare him to Adolf Hitler, behind-the-scenes organizers are studying the grassroots training methods of the late Saul Alinsky, the community organizer known for campus protests in the 1960s, and who inspired the structure of Obama’s presidential campaign.

“Among younger Tea Partiers, you see more of a libertarian streak,” said Nathan Mintz, a 26-year-old engineer and Alinsky devotee who chairs the South Bay Tea Party south of Los Angeles.

Comparison to peace rallies

Mintz, who is pro-choice and favors same-sex marriage, was among several organizers who compared the Tea Party to the anti-war movement in the wake of the 2004 elections.

Although the range of peace groups – including MoveOn and Code Pink – differed on issues and tactics, their drumbeat of opposition to former President George W. Bush eventually blossomed into a coalition that helped Democrats take over Congress in 2006.

But Tea Party organizer Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for Freedom Works, a Washington, D.C., organization that promoted the movement’s early rallies, said uniting factions has “been like herding cats at times.”

His group will focus “on four to five U.S. Senate races” next year. “Nobody has the time or resources to organize all of it. And there are a lot of people (in the movement) who don’t want to be involved in politics yet.”

Palin at national convention

Some Tea Party adherents believe that a national convention scheduled for February in Tennessee will provide some focus for the group. The keynote speaker: Former Alaska Gov. and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

But one Tea Party branch doesn’t plan to attend the national gathering.

“It’s too expensive for a lot of our members,” said Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots. “We’re a grassroots organization.”

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