The tea party energy that drove Republicans to a House victory last year seems for now the high point of the populist movement of "constitutional conservatives" that began with a TV reporter's rant about a proposed mortgage bailout in early 2009.
Taking heat for the congressional standoff over the debt ceiling this summer, and seen by many Americans as dangerously inflexible and even a cloak for a resurgence of xenophobia and social conservatism, the tea party has seen its general support dwindle in the polls even as its once boisterous street protests have quieted.
Yet for folks like Bill Evelyn, a founder of the State of Georgia Tea Party, the revolution has only begun. Having learned lessons from the past two years – including the necessity of vetting big-office candidates and trying to channel endorsements to avoid splitting tickets – the loosely organized tea party movement has thrown its anchor in the muddy trenches of local politics, reviving the GOP's moribund precinct nomination system, grooming candidates from the ground up, and setting into motion an audacious ground game patterned in part on the Democrat playbook of door-to-door canvasing and kitchen-table convincing.
As the tea party has become more politically savvy and organized, the problem activists face is mounting pushback from Democrats as well as establishment factions of the Republican Party, which have been at least partly able to raise questions about whether a tea party nation is really what America wants.
"When this whole thing started," says Mr. Evelyn, "the energy was unbelievable, but people didn't know about hard money, they didn't know the Bill of Rights was meant as a restraint on the federal government, and they voted for someone just because they had an 'R' or 'D' next to their name. Let me tell you, it's not like that now." He adds, "There's a radical change going on in the country, and the only people who don't realize it are in Washington."
Unseating President Obama remains a top tea party priority. While national media attention has focused on the shrinking field of Republican presidential candidates and the extent of their tea party bona fides, tea party activists say their strategy is to pack Republican precincts – the 1,500 building blocks of the US political party system. By doing so, the tea party hopes to win seats in state legislatures, the House, and, ultimately, the US Senate, where Democrats hold a four-seat majority and where 23 seats are up for grabs next year.
That process is already well under way in states such as Georgia. Nearly all GOP county and district committees now have tea party chairmen or key officials. The State of Georgia Tea Party's "tactical operations plan" is built around group mailing lists of as few as 20 people, with key activists in each precinct reaching out to five or six politically active families to help win local party board seats, and stack the state GOP convention with tea partyers.
"The funny thing about it," says Mr. Evelyn, "is it's working."
In Georgia, local radio hosts and small-town preachers are taking to the airwaves and pulpits, "teaching the morality of a representative republic," Evelyn says.
Such groundswells are happening outside the Peach State, too. Across the country, GOP conventions have seen an influx of new faces and candidates, pushed up by tea party takeovers of local precincts. In many places, resistance from longtime Republican activists at the local level has been futile, in part because the national party today focuses largely on state GOP committees and national advertising for messaging and candidate support.
As a result, political consultants now regularly tell hopeful politicos to "go visit the tea party ladies up the street" who wield the kind of small-town mailing lists that proved to be electoral gold in last year's elections. Dozens of modest tea party political action committees have sprung up to support state legislative races, where candidates need anywhere from $35,000 to $50,000 to be competitive.
In Ohio, a successful, though largely symbolic, referendum in November allowing Ohioans to opt out of the mandated federal health-care law was orchestrated by a tea party group running a savvy campaign, dependent on, as activists have said, "boots on the ground."
Last year, a disparate network of Indiana tea party groups nominated four separate candidates in what became a failed bid to take on Dan Coats, nominated by the GOP to replace retiring Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat. Lesson learned, Indiana tea party groups this fall organized their own state nominating convention to elect state Treasurer Richard Mourdock to challenge veteran Sen. Richard Lugar, who lost tea party support when he voted for the DREAM Act and confirmed Mr. Obama's two Supreme Court nominees. While the odds of unseating Senator Lugar are daunting, tea party activists are engaged in a door-to-door canvassing effort across Indiana.
The fundamentals of political activism have helped the tea party forge a pragmatic "synthesis" with the Republican Party, according to political scientist Dan Woodard of Clemson University, in South Carolina. (It's a shaky alliance that may eventually require a major intraparty reckoning if Republicans take over either the Senate or White House, or both, after next year's elections.)
But even with an improved ground game, the tea party no longer has the element of surprise, which some political experts say played a role in their success in the 2010 elections.
There are other problems. National polls indicate growing disagreement with the tea party. A November Pew poll showed that 27 percent of people disagree and 20 percent agree with the tea party – a near-flip from a year earlier, when 27 percent agreed and 22 percent disagreed.
"The Tea Party still don't seem to be in a majority position in the electorate," James Henson, a politics professor at the University of Texas in Austin, told Reuters recently. "The question is whether there will be uneven voter mobilization in the primaries. Will moderate Republicans show up in greater numbers? There is a lot of cleavage within the Republican Party at the national level, but the Tea Party may meet more resistance this time."
But detailed state polls tell a more nuanced story of tea party support.
A November poll by Clemson University showed that while only 12 percent of South Carolinians said they had attended tea party events, 38 percent of respondents said they generally support its principles of lower taxes, less regulation, and an end to deficit spending. Meanwhile, a mere 4 percent said they opposed the tea party. That meant that more than 50 percent showed at least some implicit sympathy, just by virtue of not being actively against the tea party, says Mr. Woodard at Clemson.
Among Republicans, the view from the precinct strategy is even rosier for the tea party, with two-thirds of Georgia Republicans, for example, agreeing with the "general views" of the tea party movement, according to a November poll by the Atlanta-based firm InsiderAdvantage.
"If you look at the 38 percent support the tea party gets [from the Clemson poll], and the fact that South Carolina voters say federal spending is their top concern, you can kind of put the pieces of the puzzle together to see that they're working hand in glove with the electorate," says Woodard. "Whatever they're saying, the electorate is echoing as well."