Trouble brewing between the Tea Party movement and the GOP?
Members of the Tea Party movement say they are not beholden to the GOP.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.