Attempting to figure out how many Minnesotans consider themselves members of the burgeoning Tea Party movement is as close to impossible an election-year task as trying to predict which way uncommitted convention delegates are going to jump.
The Tea Partiers – like one of their highest-profile standard bearers, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-MN – are good at showing up in vast numbers to protest big government, high taxes and out-of-control spending. But they are not exactly a coherent organization.
And that, as the chair of the Minnesota Republican Party sees it, is pretty much the point.
“I think people who aren’t part of the movement think it’s a highly organized, hierarchical organization,” says Tony Sutton, who acknowledges that the party has been “working hard to reach out” to people who are part of the Tea Party movement. “It’s human nature to want to compartmentalize it as an organization with certain people in charge, but it’s not.”
Rather, Sutton says, there are numerous small enclaves of Tea Party-minded voters spread across Minnesota. Republican Party officials are fully aware of the political gold to be won by wooing those disaffected voters, and the party has been reaching out to individuals rather than groups to try to garner support.
“We think we’re a more natural fit for the Tea Party folks than the Democrats,” Sutton says. “But a lot of people are saying, ‘A pox on both your houses. Sure, you say you’re the conservative party, but look at the last eight years before Barack Obama.’
“The Tea Party movement would not exist today if not for the failure of the Republican Party to deliver on its promises during the Bush administration.”
According to a Minnesota legislative staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity, but who has worked with Tea Partiers, that lack of organization can lead to misinterpretation by the public.
“Organizing makes a difference,” the staffer says. “You can have angry people who have just concerns, but if they don’t have a plan to focus that energy, it’s just a gripefest.”
Organized or not, Minnesota Tea Partiers are expected to make their presence known Wednesday at a rally in Minneapolis featuring Bachmann, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity.
Recent news reports of Tea Party participants hurling racial epithets and even spitting at Democrats (particularly supporters of President Obama’s health care reform bill) have been dismissed by some conservatives – including Hannity and Bachmann, in an exchange last month on Hannity’s Fox News show – as a smear campaign. Hannity told Bachmann that the left’s outrage over the slurs is “an attempt to smear an entire movement.”
The staffer acknowledges that whenever people gather in large numbers to protest anything, problems are inevitable. “Any time you have 100 people together, you’ll have folks who exhibit socially unacceptable behavior,” the staffer says. “I’m not saying that none of this happened, but perhaps it’s been blown up, out of proportion.
“I’ve been to several [Tea Party] rallies and events, and I see true passion, true anger, but I have not seen outrageous misconduct. I’ve seen a heck of a lot of strong exercises of free speech, but I don’t have a problem with that.”
Although Bachmann has made numerous appearances and speeches at Tea Party rallies and protests nationwide, repeatedly whipping crowds of conservative believers into chanting frenzies, she withdrew from February’s Tea Party national convention in Nashville, where she was a scheduled speaker.
Bachmann’s staff said the cancellation was due to concern about how organizer Judson Phillips – an attorney with a reportedly sketchy financial history – intended to use the profits from the $549-a-head convention. But, her spokesmen said, her withdrawal from the convention didn’t mean that she was distancing herself from the Tea Partiers: “Some will want to portray her withdrawal as a repudiation of the Tea Party movement, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said a statement issued by Bachmann’s office. “Congresswoman Bachmann remains encouraged by all Americans, regardless of political party, who are concerned about this nation’s future and dwindling prosperity, and continues to be inspired by their passion.”
One of the problems in Minnesota is tracking down those passionate Tea Partiers.
One of dozens of Tea Party-related websites, TeaParty.org – which encourages followers to “send a pink slip to every congressman” and promises that “this coming November, We The People will not be satisfied with merely un-electing garbage politicians; we are demanding a complete and thorough fumigation of Washington and the return to the sweet fragrance of Liberty” – offers a list of Minnesotans who it identifies as state organizers.
But contacting the people on that list turns up a number of people who claim that they’re no longer involved with the movement, and a quick dismissal.
“The time and energy involved in working hard for a good, legitimate reason – it was a very difficult thing,” says David Lawrence of Watertown, who is identified on TeaParty.org as Minnesota’s “official Tea Party coordinator,” but who says he’s withdrawn from that role.
Instead, Lawrence says, he’s focusing on the e-marketing company that he owns. “Things are finally picking up,” he says. “I decided to concentrate instead on survival and putting my company back on the map.”
Chris Wallace, also listed on TeaParty.org as a Minneapolis organizer, is more succinct when asked if he’s involved with the Tea Party movement. “No,” he says. “I would say no.”
At least two Republican legislative candidates acknowledge that they have been involved with Tea Party groups: Rudy Takala of Pine City, who is seeking to unseat incumbent Rep. Tim Faust, a DFLer from Hinckley, and Gretchen Hoffman of Vergas, the GOP’s endorsed candidate to challenge incumbent Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt.
The 21-year-old Takala, whose campaign committee is called Reformers for Rudy, became disenchanted with the direction of politics and government before he was old enough to legally drink in Minnesota, and formed a group called Simply Right, which he labels a “conservative, discussion-based group.”
Takala says he became interested in the Tea Party movement because he believes that the Republican Party “hasn’t done a lot better than the Democrats in listening to people in the past few years.
“I think there are a lot of disgruntled voters who want politicians who they feel listen to them,” he says. “The Republicans didn’t do that in the last few years of the [Bush] administration, and the Democrats are certainly not perceived as having done that. I see the Tea Party as a great way to pull in independent voters and, more importantly, people who believe in the Constitution.”
Takala failed to earn the endorsement of District 8B Republicans last month, but not for lack of trying. During a seven-hour endorsement battle on March 23, Takala emerged victorious from five straight ballots against another GOP contender, Roger Crawford of Mora, but never received more than 55.5 percent of the votes – and 60 percent was required to win the endorsement.
He plans to run in the primary, and has collected endorsements from high-ranking Republicans in his district and the conservative group Minnesotans for Limited Government.
Hoffman’s first involvement in politics came when she volunteered for the U.S. Senate recount last year. “I didn’t like the direction things were going in this country,” she says. “I’d always been informed, but never really involved. And then one day I woke up and I saw my country going away.”
Hoffman said she began seeking out others who felt the same way, eventually meeting other Tea Partiers and working with them to organize small gatherings in and around Vergas (which bills itself as “home of the world’s largest loon”).
“We’re not affiliated with any larger Tea Party group,” she says. “There are a bunch of us around. This is just a local grassroots thing, but we have something to say and we’re going to say it.”