Tea Party Members Gear Up for First Major Test

January 16, 2009: A coalition of Tea Party groups rally against Democrats and U.S. President Barack Obama Saturday afternoon at the Texas Capitol.
January 16, 2009: A coalition of Tea Party groups rally against Democrats and U.S. President Barack Obama Saturday afternoon at the Texas Capitol.

In the waning hours of a chilly Wednesday night, the North Texas Tea Party’s Blog Warrior and Talking Head — yes, those are their official titles — sit outside Plano City Council candidate Cathy Fang’s office. They grin as they discuss the money they’ll spend on the battle between true conservatives and the "philosophically pliable" in Collin County. “Maybe we just have delusions of grandeur,” says Talking Head Mark Reid.

Those delusions aren’t without merit. Already, the efforts of Reid and Blog Warrior Michael Openshaw and their Tea Party offshoots have propelled Fang, a CPA, into an unexpected runoff to fill a City Council vacancy.

They know the staying power of the burgeoning Tea Party movement faces a serious test in 2010 — the first major election cycle since its national debut at an April 2009 nationwide Tax Day rally. Right now, it feels like the wind is at their backs, particularly with poll numbers that show GOP activist Debra Medina, a Tea Party-backed candidate, holding her own against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the primary for governor. But in the last year, the movement has experienced its share of growing pains.

The Tea Party movement got its start on Feb. 27, 2009, when people in 15 U.S. cities, including Dallas, held protests against government intrusion. (The Dallas gathering was 300 people strong.) This Feb. 27 — the North Texas offshoot’s one-year anniversary — thousands of Texans concerned about the “unrestrained growth in the size and scope of government,” as a press release puts it, are expected to gather at Dallas City Hall.

If most Tea Party participants had been asked early last year what they’d be doing today, they never would have predicted this, says Phillip Dennis, a member of the Dallas Tea Party steering committee. “We have traditionally been the people that pay the bills and vote on Election Day but have sat back and been involved in other things rather than politics,” he says. “We’re trying to tell people you can’t sit back and allow this to happen.”

While that message has rallied the troops, who and where all those troops are — and whether they’ll actually fight — are questions still unanswered. “Our bar for membership is pretty low,” says Ken Emanuelson, another Dallas steering committee member.  

That low bar has certainly driven up enlistee numbers. State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, counts “five or six different Tea Party groups” in her district. And while most agree on the Tea Party principles — limited government, fiscal responsibility, personal responsibility, the rule of law and national sovereignty — they don’t always play by the same rules.

For starters, there’s a lot of wiggle room within the principles and little agreement on how best to promote them. “I went to a meeting not long ago with the Tea Party,” Shapiro says, “and they had so many issues that they were there about that you kind of lost the tax-and-spend and limited government issues in the wash.”

Then there’s how the parties are structured. The Dallas Tea Party, for example, was established as a nonprofit focused almost entirely on providing nonpartisan voter information. Because of its nonprofit status, it is legally barred from endorsing candidates — and that’s just fine with its members. Emanuelson, a former operative for presidential candidate Fred Thompson in 2008, says the party has a teach-a-man-to-fish mentality focused on “giving voters the tools … so they can then go get their own information.”

“It’s seemed to work real well for us,” Dennis adds. “It’s also kept us away from the left-wing press saying we’re just pawns of the Republican Party, because we’re probably more at issue with the Republicans than the Democrats. We know where the Democrats are, but the Republicans ought to know better.”

The North Texas Tea Party, established as a political action committee, is taking a more hands-on approach, says Openshaw, a former Republican Party county chairman and a "chaos voter" in the 2008 Democratic primary (at Rush Limbaugh's urging, he voted for Hillary Clinton to derail Barack Obama's momentum). Openshaw says groups like the nonprofit Dallas Tea Party “just want corporate money, and being a nonprofit is the way to do that.” His PAC has begun a vetting process through which candidates can become “Tea Approved” — so long as they pledge to adhere to the five principles.  It’s not a hard endorsement to get: Two candidates in West Plano’s Republican House primary, Wayne Richard and Van Taylor, have been “Tea Approved.” Meanwhile, another area PAC, the Collin County Tea Party, has endorsed Richard outright.

The differences don’t end there. Like the Dallas Tea Party, from which many of the smaller groups sprang, the North Texas Tea Party "will not allow [itself] to become an arm of the Republican Party," Openshaw insists. "I’d have no problem with Tea approving a Democrat.” By contrast, former Collin County Tea Party organizer Diane Nusbaum, temporarily disassociated from the group while she runs Richard’s campaign, says that, personally, she “just can’t imagine” a Democrat getting an endorsement from her once and future organization.

Openshaw feels the decentralization has been good for the movement. “We have some different philosophies, and there have been some personality clashes,” he says. “But this way everyone can just retreat to their own line and it’s not a problem.”

If banding together locally has been difficult, then imagine trying to bring together a national movement. The Dallas Tea Party didn’t send any representatives to the recent national Tea Party conference in Nashville, Tenn. “That’s just one guy who wanted to have a national conference,” Dennis shrugs. And as for the keynote speaker, former vice presidential contender Sarah Palin, Dennis says her support of Gov. Rick Perry is “ridiculous.” “No one will ever lead this movement," Dennis says. "At the Dallas Tea Party, we’re not going to tell you what to do in Arizona, because we can’t and I don’t want to.”

Despite, or because of, its decentralized organization, the movement is making its presence felt, even in safely Republican Collin County. A recent Collin County poll conducted by political consultant Joe Counter found Medina eclipsing Hutchison in the race for governor by just under 1 percent — in a county that’s in Hutchison’s backyard.

Richard, a Republican first and Tea Party participant second, looks forward to future cohesion. “I just feel like if we become fractious everywhere, nothing will get done,” he says. And with ties to multiple Tea-themed organizations, a Richard victory in Plano would cement the importance of the local movement.

“There’s a civil war going on in the Republican Party,” Dennis says. “The Republican elites don’t want to admit it. They say, “Oh, we’re with you guys.”  Well, we’re not with you guys — and that’s the message we have for them: We know who you are, and it’s not acceptable. And we’re going to win.”

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.