FORT WORTH, Texas – For much of the past year, things looked bad for the tea party: Polls showed little new interest from voters, and its favorite presidential contenders flopped in the face of Mitt Romney, who was denounced in the movement. But the final days of the Republican Senate primary runoff here suggest that the tea party may be reshaping itself into a political operation with long-term viability.
On Tuesday, GOP voters will choose between former state solicitor Ted Cruz, who has benefited from intense tea party support, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, an establishment Republican and protégé of Gov. Rick Perry.
Dewhurst finished first in the primary in May but failed to win a majority, forcing the runoff. According to recent polling, Cruz may be in the lead.
As disappointing as it was when the nomination went to Mitt Romney, we all knew we had to work from the bottom up, said Konni Burton, one of the leaders of the NE Tarrant Tea Party in the suburbs of Fort Worth.
She and other activists criticize Dewhurst as having been too conciliatory toward Democrats in the Texas legislature and generally too moderate in his politics.
Burtons laundry room is one of dozens of local distribution points set up by tea party groups to distribute literature promoting Cruz. Over the past few days, she and hundreds of other tea party supporters phoned tens of thousands of voters, knocked on doors and waved signs on street corners across the state.
Boots-on-the-ground stuff, Burton said. It makes me laugh when people say the tea party was dead.
Cruz also got a boost from last-minute visits to Texas by a host of major tea party figures – including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and Republican Sens. Jim DeMint, S.C., and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Regardless of how the Texas vote turns out, its clear that a transformation is occurring and that it could have an effect on the presidential election in November – and the longer-term balance of power inside the Republican Party.
The tea party is no longer the rising tsunami it appeared to be in 2010. Largely gone are the disorderly rallies, Colonial-era costumes and fixations on fringe issues, such as the provenance of the presidents birth certificate.
In their place is a loosely organized network of field operations that, as in Texas, pushes Republicans toward more strident conservative positions and candidates while supplying ground troops across the country for candidates and big-money conservative groups, such as Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity.
One recent poll put Ohios Republican state treasurer, Josh Mandel, a 34-year-old veteran of two tours in Iraq, just four points behind Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
In Florida, Republican Rep. Connie Mack, who has been endorsed by many tea party groups, appears to have pulled ahead of Sen. Bill Nelson, the Democratic incumbent.
‘A really big story’
The ability of the tea party to really influence the quality and makeup of a potential Republican majority in the Senate is going to be a really big story, said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a Washington tea party support group chaired by former House majority leader Dick Armey.
FreedomWorks says that almost 190,000 activists have joined its FreedomConnector online network and that it expects fundraising in 2012 to exceed the approximately $21 million it collected last year.
Through the end of May, tea-party-associated political action committees had raised almost $18 million.
Tea Party Patriots, which says it is affiliated with more than 3,500 local tea party groups, reported raising $12 million in donations in 2011 and says it is on track to match or surpass that number this year.
Across the country, once-fractious tea party groups are working in concert with state and national Republican parties on key campaigns, especially in critical swing states.
In pivotal Ohio, tea party organizers who not long ago opposed the presumptive Republican nominee recently supplied hundreds of volunteers for a Romney campaign operation dubbed the Buckeye Blitz.
During June, the volunteers visited more than 100,000 households identified by the GOP as undecided or independent voters, according to David Zupan, a tea party activist in Avon Lake, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.
In a big push this month, a mix of tea party and regular Romney volunteers visited at least 40,000 homes in all 88 Ohio counties, according to Scott Jennings, Romneys state director in Ohio.
Tea party activists in the state are most focused on electing Mandel, who was the star attraction in late June at a meeting of more than 1,000 tea party activists in Columbus, the second such meeting since the 2010 election.