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Tea Party transit

Campaign 2010 | Having made an enormous mark in the 2010 election, Tea Partiers now face the challenge of maintaining their momentum

Issue: "A second chance," Nov. 20, 2010

PADUCAH and MADISONVILLE, Ky.-The start of a late-October Tea Party rally was still more than an hour away. But David and Christy Fletcher were already waiting along the bank where the Tennessee River flows into the Ohio.

The Fletchers were putting finishing touches on their colonial-era costumes: David, 52, from nearby DeSoto, Ill., sported a green waistcoat, black buckle shoes, and red stockings. Christy, 49, stood nearby in her rose-flowered period dress. David handed her colonial-era flags out of the back of their beige Ford FreeStar. Next would come the loading of David's flintlock rifle-"the rifle that won the American Revolution," he said.

The Fletchers have been dressing up at events and for schools since 1995, and David spent part of Sept. 11, 2001, on a street corner in full costume, waving an American flag. Drivers trying to come to grips with the terrorist attacks waved and honked.

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David says he enjoys the new Tea Party company, but he wonders if it will last. "American people tend to wake up, get excited, and then they go back to sleep," said David, who later, at the rally's main stage, raised his rifle high above his head and gave a rendition of Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" speech. "We need to stay on the front lines and not back down. We have to do this for the rest of our lives. This isn't just one election."

No one will disagree that the less than two-year-old Tea Party movement left an indelible mark on the 2010 election. Despite notable Tea Party defeats in the Delaware and Nevada Senate races, exit polls showed an impressive nearly 40 percent of midterm voters expressed support for the Tea Party. But the euphoria of campaign rallies and bus tours has ended. It will soon be replaced with the often-boring slog of governing.

Now a slew of freshman lawmakers are set to carry the Tea Party banner into Congress: a place that they have described as enemy territory. Will they be able to reverse the big-government trends of the last several years? Or will they, and the movement itself, remain a group of loosely connected, rough-around-the-edges political activists whose resistance to structure actually limits their post-Nov. 2 influence?

In short, what will happen when the bottom-up Tea Party comes to top-down Washington?

"I've been thinking a lot about that," James Tidwell, 82, of Paducah told me at the rally. I met Tidwell, who calls himself a "grassroots, mid-America Republican," shortly after the rally's opening prayer in which the speaker called current political leaders "gutless."

"Just about everything Obama has done needs to be repealed," Tidwell said. "Not reformed. And they ought to start that in January. If they dilly dally, they will lose my confidence."

Tidwell ticked off for me his legislative goals: ending Obamacare, stopping bailouts, killing the stimulus, reducing the size and scope of government, preventing cap and trade, and doing away with the Department of Education.

Others at the rally added to this legislative agenda: a balanced budget amendment, term limits, immigration reform, reducing regulations, renewing the Bush-era tax cuts, establishing a flat tax, eliminating the estate tax, and phasing out Social Security and Medicare in favor of personal savings accounts.

The Tea Party grassroots has a conservative to-do list just as ambitious as the Democrats' liberal agenda of the last two years. These super-sized expectations have been building through the emotional campaign season, and most Tea Partiers' anger will turn into hope now that they have voices inside the Capitol.

But Judson Phillips, the Memphis, Tenn., founder of Tea Party Nation and organizer of the movement's first ever convention last February, warns that his Tea Party brethren need to have more realistic expectations: "We will have to be content the first couple of years with just stopping the Obama agenda. We are not repealing Obamacare this time. We simply won't have enough votes."

That doesn't mean the new crop of Tea Party lawmakers won't be aggressive. Expect epic fights between Tea Party lawmakers and Washington Democrats. But the more interesting looming battle could be between Tea Party lawmakers and Washington Republicans.

The crowd in Paducah loved 47-year-old Bowling Green eye surgeon Rand Paul, who in May became the first Tea Party favorite to upset an establishment-endorsed Republican candidate in a primary. The message of Paul, who won a Senate seat on Nov. 2, is one Republicans in Washington may not like. "Both parties have failed us," he told the crowd, adding that "what is going on in Washington is extreme. What is going on here is the mainstream."

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