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Tea Party transit

"Tea Party transit" Continued...

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

The Bluegrass state could become the epicenter of the intraparty drama: Beginning next year it will be represented by Tea Party darling Paul and also by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, first elected by Kentucky voters in 1985.

You can't get much more old-guard than being in Congress for 25 years, including nearly four years as Senate GOP leader. Jesse Burris, a GOP county chairman, calls McConnell the "godfather of the Kentucky Republicans." But last summer voters found a McConnell offer that they could refuse: After he corralled nearly two dozen Republican senators for a D.C. fundraiser supporting his choice in the GOP primary, Trey Grayson, Kentucky Republicans chose Paul.

After Grayson's defeat, McConnell led another Washington fundraiser with several senators, this time for Paul. Showing the balancing act Tea Partiers will face between keeping their outsider credentials and embracing their old guard colleagues, Paul, by attending the event, reversed a primary pledge not to accept donations from anyone who had backed the $700 billion bank bailout in 2008.

The bigger challenge, though, could be for long-serving Republicans relishing newfound party power in Washington. The question of the next Congress, according to Burris, is "Can you teach old dogs new tricks?"

The Tea Party has the numbers and the enthusiasm to make old dogs roll over. The local establishment figure for the GOP, McCracken County Republican Party Chairman Dan Underwood, attended the Tea Party rally. He surveyed the riverbank packed with lawn chairs and said the Tea Party will continue to move Republicans to the right: "More than a thousand people are here. If Republicans had tried something like this there would just be hundreds."

Sure enough, a few hours later about 200 people attended a rally at the parking lot of the Hopkins County Republican Party's headquarters in nearby Madisonville, Ky. The local GOP tried to entice folks with free hot dogs and early Halloween candy. Here the sandy-haired Paul mingled with the crowd in the parking lot before taking the microphone to repeat most of his lines from the earlier rally-minus the Tea Party plugs.

For the Tea party movement to have influence, John O'Hara, author of A New American Tea Party, says its members must evolve from rallying, recruiting, and campaigning to emphasizing "accountability." Tea Partiers across the United States understand that.

For example, Florida's Danita Kilcullen, 60, is ready to be on the accountability watch. She founded the Fort Lauderdale Tea Party, and for more than 80 straight weeks she and other members have spent two hours each Saturday afternoon camped out at one of the city's busiest intersections. With as many as 135 protesters bringing Tea Party flags and protest signs, drivers at first would stare the other way. But one Saturday Kilcullen said she counted 2,500 honks of support. After each protest, her group retires to a nearby Jib Room pub to discuss strategy.

At a recent meeting, Kilcullen asked, "Who here thinks the Tea Party is done after Nov. 2?" No hands went up. Author O'Hara argues that Kilcullen's group might be correct: He says that the group's lack of a central leader will help it survive where other movements die out after the figurehead disappoints, loses, or disappears.

Kilcullen says she understands that Washington is a "very corrupting realm." That is why her group's next task is to keep a close eye on the freshman Tea Party lawmakers: "We are their boss, and we will not let them forget that. As we say in our Tea Party meetings here in Florida, 'On Nov. 3 we are already searching for somebody to replace you.'"

To avoid getting fully sucked into the GOP party apparatus, new Sen. Paul hopes to launch a bipartisan, bicameral Tea Party caucus. He promises not to act like a career politician, biding his time on the chamber's backbench until party leaders invite him to join the big lawmaker table. But will these new lawmakers, who argued that never holding office is an attribute, have the skills to make laws?

That is where Jim DeMint comes in. The Senate Republican from South Carolina has been an early backer of the movement from inside Congress. He supported Tea Party long shots like Paul long before other veteran lawmakers. Most observers expect that DeMint, just elected to his second term in the Senate after serving three terms in the House, will become the de facto congressional leader of the Tea Party.

At a recent rally in Erlanger, Ky., DeMint told the crowd that the Tea Party "has the establishment shaking in their boots." He then quoted from a thank-you card he had recently received from Paul. It read: "I smile when I think of what we can do together in the Senate."

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