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Why the GOP can't steer the 'tea party' bandwagon

Despite various efforts to coopt 'tea party' momentum and energy for the mainstream GOP, elections continue to show that the movement has a mind of its own.

By Staff writer / September 21, 2010

Jenny Beth Martin, a Tea Party Patriots founder and coordinator, takes part in a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington Tuesday to announce that the organization received a $1 million donation.

Carolyn Kaster/AP



John Burford represents perhaps the biggest force of this topsy-turvy election year: the "tea party" voter.

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He's not thinking party. He's not thinking strategy. He's thinking about a single message he wants to send to Washington: You work for us. No one's political career is safe.

And so far, it appears that he and his tea party compatriots have stayed true to that ideal.

Like no other current grass-roots political movement, Mr. Burford and his fellow tea party folk represent a cornucopia of votes, all sitting there for the harvesting. Republicans have tried to do some of that harvesting, and a $1 million anonymous donation to the Tea Party Patriots announced Tuesday points to the attempt to convert that potential into ballots cast in November.

But recent primary results from Delaware to Alaska – where upstart, tea-party-backed candidates beat the Republican establishment candidates – continue to show that the tea party movement is not one easily guided. For November and beyond, the results suggest that the voters who sympathize with the tea party – even if they help Republicans take the House or Senate this November – can't be expected to act like GOP team players.

"What we've got to realize is that the dam has broken and there's all this pent-up energy coming out, and it's hard to harness," says Burford, a local tea party organizer in the rural north Florida town of Jennings. "The fact is, there's not a lot of real harnessing that can be done. It's going to tend to carve the river bed the way it wants to."

Reluctant bedfellows?

Of course, there is a natural cross-fertilization between conservative tea party groups and the GOP.

Groups like the Tea Party Express (which is run by a Republican marketing guru), FreedomWorks, and Tea Party Nation are tapping into Republican networks and expanding their endorsement lists, often to include more mainstream Republican candidates. Meanwhile, Sen. Jim DeMint has come forward as a veritable one-man tea party cheerleader.

The $1 million donation to the Tea Party Patriots, too, in some ways represents an effort to mainstream the tea party, some suggest. Adam Brandon, a spokesman with FreedomWorks, one of the national organizations trying to steer the tea party energy into Republican success in November, says that "the brilliance of everything you're seeing is that its strength is in its decentralization."

"People are starting to realize that the tea party represents a powerful get-out-the-vote machine," Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, told the Washington Post.