The moment of truth is coming for the "tea party" movement. Forget about Patriot's Day, or last week's excitement around tax day. The big show is the elections – both the primaries and Election Day, Nov. 2.
But trying to get a handle on how tea partyers will affect these votes can be like watching cats wrestle under the carpet. You know something's going on, but you're not quite sure what. This populist movement favoring low taxes, small government, and personal freedom has remained highly decentralized, by design. And it's anyone's guess how many active participants or local groups there are.
A former state GOP chair puts the number at 500-plus local tea party groups, and 15 umbrella groups. Mark Kibbe, president of the Washington-based FreedomWorks, which advises tea party groups, says there are "easily thousands of local groups."
Nailing down the demographics has also been a challenge. A recent Quinnipiac Poll showed tea partyers to be mostly female. Last week, a New York Times/CBS News survey found that a majority are men and older than the electorate as a whole.
"The tea party produces more noise than numbers," says David Wasserman, House race expert for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "The impact will be on the margins. But that's still relevant, because the majority in the House is on a knife's edge."
One of the marquee House races this cycle sits in the heart of Virginia, in the mostly rural, conservative-leaning Fifth Congressional District. Seven Republicans are vying in the June 8 primary to face freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (D); five are tea party adherents. So far, they are trailing state Sen. Robert Hurt, the Republican establishment favorite, in name recognition and fundraising.
"The downside for the tea party is that you have Senator Hurt, who is pretty much the anointed one from the GOP and gets that 'hard R' support," says Mark Lloyd, head of the Lynchburg Tea Party. "The others split up the rest of the support. Everybody's kind of got their favorite in the race."
Aside from being the establishment favorite, Hurt has also earned tea party scorn over his 2004 vote to increase taxes. The biggest problem, for now, is that the seven Republicans are spending money fighting among themselves, rather than going after the Democrat. If any of the tea party candidates breaks away before the primary to run as an independent, the problems could deepen, as the Republican/conservative vote could be split in the general election.
Across the nation, Republicans are flocking to run in congressional primaries, with more than double the number running in 2010 than in 2006. "Every Republican candidate wants to reach out to these local organizations in their state," says Mr. Wasserman.
The question is how many tea partyers enter the general election as independents, opposing both Republicans and Democrats on the ballot. That could happen in about 10 districts, he says.
In Senate races, tea-party-backed candidates are making a splash in several primaries:
•Florida: Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R) has rocked the political world with his insurgent campaign against Gov. Charlie Crist (R) for the state's open Senate seat. Governor Crist, at one time a popular moderate with a knack for fundraising, appeared unbeatable, but the more conservative Mr. Rubio looks poised to beat him in the Aug. 24 primary - if Crist remains in the battle at all. He is widely reported to be considering quitting the GOP and running for Senate as an independent, which would turn the general election into a three-way battle.
•Arizona: No less a figure than Sen. John McCain, the Republican Party's presidential nominee in 2008, faces a strong challenge from the right by former Rep. J.D. Hayworth. The Arizona tea party groups have opted not to make an endorsement in the Aug. 24 primary, but Mr. Hayworth is a clear favorite among rank-and-file tea partyers in the state.
•Kentucky: Trey Grayson, Kentucky's secretary of state, looked like a shoo-in to become the Republican nominee for the state's open Senate seat until Rand Paul came along. Mr. Paul, an ophthalmologist and antitax activist, has gained traction with tea partyers, who discount Mr. Grayson over his GOP establishment backing. Paul is also the son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, which gives him cachet.
•Utah: Sen. Bob Bennett (R) presents perhaps the most striking example of an incumbent who could lose his seat because of tea party opposition. He is hardly a moderate, but he did support the original Wall Street bailout and has worked with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon on healthcare legislation.
In this cycle, that could be enough to do him in. Senator Bennett may not even emerge from the May nominating convention with a spot on the November ballot.
"Bennett is 'establishment,' so to the tea party he's part of the problem," says Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report.
Despite the impact tea partyers have had in political races, leaders are still fighting the notion that their movement is amorphous and therefore less than legitimate.
In early April, a coalition of 23 tea party organizations formed a National Tea Party Federation aimed at coordinating messaging and addressing image problems in the media. The fact that one major tea party group, Tea Party Patriots, declined to join may just further the idea that the movement lacks organizational definition.
But, say supporters, that's the whole point. The tea party is a bottom-up, grass-roots phenomenon that will remain energized only if members feel empowered and not controlled by a central authority, they say.
"I think the formation of the federation is more a symbolic gesture," says Mr. Kibbe of FreedomWorks, which joined the group. "Even though there are different groups, different tactics, and different memberships, we're all sort of in this together."
And new groups are still forming. Mike Glantz, a retired businessman in Clermont, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, had his first meeting in late March, expecting 30 or 40 people to show up. He got 180. For him, the driving issue is health-care reform – and specifically, cuts to Medicare Advantage. For the younger members, it's the federal debt and jobs.
"This was the first time I saw a group in public be so [upset] about what's going on in Washington," Mr. Glantz says.
Glantz also objects to the image of tea partyers on TV as "a bunch of stupid rednecks." In his group, he has retired professionals, small-business men, schoolteachers. "One guy is a licensed engineer," he says. "Sounds like a pretty bright guy to me."
Some tea partyers don't need any leader at all to be active. Laurie Whitehead of Alexandria, Va., says in an e-mail that her leader is "PRINCIPLE!" "I stand with anyone who stands for our Constitution (original intent), our freedom (including free markets), and says NO to reckless government spending and socialism!"