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.
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."
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."
This Washington shake-up attempt, now approved by the voters, begins in January.
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