Five years after an estimated one million Tea Party activists turned out at more than 900 rallies across the country on April 15, 2009 to participate in the historic national Tax Day Tea Party, there are only a few such rallies on tax day, 2014 — and nothing approaching the size of the 2009 effort.
But leading Tea Party activists say the movement has moved on to a more sophisticated strategy of playing in local and national elections. The three core values featured on that day of protests – constitutionally limited government, free markets, and fiscal responsibility – are now at issue in a host of campaigns nationwide, the leaders say.
The 2009 event was significant because it forced a reluctant mainstream media to acknowledge that the Tea Party movement, which had launched two months earlier, shortly after the famous Rick Santelli rant, existed as a serious force in American politics.
“Those rallies were absolutely essential to the development of the movement,” Ben Cunningham, founder of the Nashville Tea Party, told Breitbart News. “Until then, our dissatisfaction with the overreaching power of the federal government had been completely ignored. After those rallies, the mainstream media simply could not afford to ignore our message.”
Many other local Tea Party leaders told Breitbart News they agree with Cunnigham’s assessment of the critical role the 2009 Tax Day Tea Party rallies played in the evolution of the movement.
“While many in the media measure our strength in elections they forget that we are now also candidates, election workers, party officers, school board members, and issue advocates,” Waco, Texas, Tea Party founder Toby Marie Walker told Breitbart News. “We are stronger and more involved in the political process than ever before.”
“Rallies were a great start but have done little to bring effective change,” Travis Witt, chairman of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation, told Breitbart News. “I believe that the Tea Party is learning to become the thermostat rather than the thermometer. Changing the political climate is more beneficial than just measuring it. We knew the why in 2009 and spoke it; now we are learning the how and accomplishing it. To put it another way – less fluff and more stuff.”
Joe Dugan, founder of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party and executive producer of the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention, thinks the Tea Party has had a significant electoral impact. “The Tea Party has had a tremendous influence on elections,” he told Breitbart News, “exactly because [we] have educated masses of average Americans about the truth behind the curtain in government obfuscation, where transparency is a death knell.”
“We have moved from rallies to action teams that work on more target projects,” Zan Green, founder of the Rainy Day Patriots of Birmingham, Alabama, told Breitbart News. “The Rainy Day Patriots has many members working on campaigns for the 2014 elections. Some candidates are our own members; some our Alabama State candidates; one is even in a United States House of Representatives race.”
Organized by three informal groups that had not been in existence less than a year before (Smart Girl Politics, Top Conservatives on Twitter, and the #dontgo movement, later known as the American Liberty Alliance), the huge 2009 Tax Day Tea Party rallies burst on the scene with an energy and passion that shocked the political and media establishments alike.
Several of the original organizers remain key players in the Tea Party movement today.
Jenny Beth Martin, who helped organize the 2009 Tax Day Tea Party with Smart Girl Politics, subsequently became the co-founder and president of Tea Party Patriots, the largest national Tea Party organization with a network of local Tea Party group affiliates around the country.
Amy Kremer, who volunteered to handle many of the scheduling details of the 2009 Tax Day Tea Party, is now a spokesperson for Tea Party Express, the Political Action Committee that has played a significant role in backing several Tea Party candidates in 2010 and 2012 Senate and Congressional elections.
Local organizers of the 2009 Tax Day Tea Party rallies also remain active in the movement.
Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation and the local organizer behind the 2009 Tax Day Tea Party rally in Nashville, Tennessee, told Breitbart News, “The Tea Party realized if we were going to do nothing but rallies, we would be nothing but a flash in the pan. The Tea Party movement has started fighting at several levels to change government. We are seeing this at the local level, state level, and national level. Without the Tea Party, candidates like Chris McDaniel would not be challenging RINO Republicans like Thad Cochran.”
“Rallies can attract attention,” said Mark Kevin Lloyd, a longtime Tea Party activist from Virginia, “but focusing on getting patriotic Americans to the polls is the only thing that will save this nation and give our kids and grand-kids a chance for a future with freedom. It is time to turn words into work.”
Lynn Moss, coordinator of the Mid-South Tea Party and a Tea Party leader since the start of the movement, told Breitbart News, “Tea party activists in the Memphis area are now focused on influencing elected officials and also legislation through citizen involvement at all levels of government.”
“Just be sure that this Tea Party has not gone away, has not for one brief moment stopped or gone under,” Zan Green of the Rainy Day Patriots told Breitbart News. “We have refocused, adjusted our yearly goals; new members step up, and tired members back away to refresh, but Rainy Day Patriots never shrink from the duty of country.”
Larry Nordvig, coordinator of the Richmond, Virginia, Tea Party, told Breitbart News the movement got past rallies because they simply did not have enough impact. “In 2009, the ‘Taxed Enough Already’ Party rallied in huge numbers to voice opposition to higher taxes, the national debt, and Obamacare,” he said. “The result? Today we have even more taxes, skyrocketing debt, and socialized health care.”
Five years later, Nordvig says, “If a rally that big couldn’t make our elected officials listen to ‘We the People,’ clearly our focus must shift to what will… namely, giving them the pink slip at the ballot box!”
Two important Republican U.S. Senate primaries over the next two months will indicate the degree of the Tea Party’s organizational development. On May 20, Tea Party-endorsed challenger Matt Bevin faces incumbent Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in Kentucky’s Republican U.S. Senate primary.
The Tea Party’s best chance to score an upset victory may come in Mississippi’s June 3 Republican U.S. Senate primary, where Tea Party-endorsed state senator Chris McDaniel takes on incumbent Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS).