Their candidate lost in the end, but for many in the rapidly expanding "tea party" movement, this fall's special House race in upstate New York was a "training ground" that taught its cadre of loosely organized grass-roots activists how to challenge both major parties and has only whetted the movement's appetite for the 2010 midterm elections.
Tea party foot soldiers fueled Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman's meteoric rise that drove liberal Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava out of the race, giving the anti-tax, anti-spending activists their first real victory.
But the ballot-box clout of the movement remains a question mark after Mr. Hoffman fell in a tight race to Democrat Bill Owens Tuesday, handing Democrats their biggest victory on a night of reverses and giving the party control of the New York House seat for the first time in more than a century.
But despite the close loss, tea party activists insist they have proved this year that they will be a new force to be reckoned with on the American political scene.
"These are people who are slowly starting to focus on elections. Many of them, who had never been involved in politics before, were uninterested in the political parties, but are now treading carefully about how to get involved and where they get involved," said Brendan Steinhauser, grass-roots director at FreedomWorks, the conservative organization headed by former House Republican leader Dick Armey of Texas.
Virtually all of the activists are new to politics, and the Hoffman campaign tapped into their forces from the start, with the help of FreedomWorks and other groups. Many were given key positions in the Hoffman campaign, where they learned quickly about the nuts-and-bolts of elective politics.
Jennifer Bernstone, of Canastota, N.Y., 36, an actress and acting coach who attended a tea-party Tax Day rally on April 15 and the movement's huge march on Washington five months later, remembers when she received a call from Hoffman campaign manager Matt Moran in early September.
"I had never in my life been involved in a campaign before. I'm a typical American who hadn't paid any attention to politics. I didn't know how to put in a yard sign," she said.
She was put in charge of setting up the campaign's headquarters in her town and helped organize Hoffman campaign events there and elsewhere. She set up a Web site that was inundated with thousands of tea party volunteers around the country who made phone calls for the campaign.
"They wanted to make phone calls for Doug Hoffman from all over the country," she said.
New York Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long said the tea party activists "played a major part in this grass-roots effort, which can only be described as a tax rebellion by a group of people who are sending a message to Washington that we are going to fight to take back our country."
Election analysts and conservative political organizers predicted that tea party activists will be playing a large role in some of the key House and Senate battleground races next year, regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's race.
"These are not people who are unsure of themselves. I don't think defeat will force them to reassess. They are sure they are right, and nothing will shake them," said veteran election handicapper Stuart Rothenberg.
Conservative, tea-party-backed candidates may challenge moderate Republican candidates as the midterm 2010 cycle picks up in earnest, Mr. Steinhauser said.
"They are going to pick and choose what are the best races to do that. I'm hearing that some of those Senate races are going to include Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada and possibly Arkansas," he said.
Some Democrats are welcoming the tea party phenomenon, saying Mr. Hoffman's loss Tuesday is a harbinger of more divisions within the Republican Party that will drag the GOP farther from the political center.
"What we are seeing here is a fractured GOP in Senate races all over the country," said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and point man for the party in the 2010 Senate races. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., campaigning for Mr. Owens in New York on Monday, made an open appeal to Republican moderates backing Mrs. Scozzafava to support the Democrat.
Until now, the loosely organized grass-roots activists have avoided getting involved in major campaigns and party politics, focusing their efforts on anti-tax rallies and providing much of the passion behind the raucous protests over health care reform at congressional town hall meetings in August.
Ironically, becoming involved in political campaigning and party organizing remains a divisive issue in some quarters of the tea party movement, which remains stubbornly independent of both the Republican and Democratic party establishments.
"In some of these tea party groups, members are split over whether they should or should not endorse candidates. Some believe it taints the movement by getting involved in politics as an organization," said Joe Wierzbicki, political coordinator for the Tea Party Express.
The Tea Party Express is in the midst of its second cross-country bus tour, holding rallies in key districts that are expected to be future campaign battlegrounds.
"Others believe this is the whole purpose of what the tea party movement is about. For us, the only way to bring about change is at the ballot box, which is the reason we endorsed Doug Hoffman 3 1/2 weeks ago and contributed to his campaign," Mr. Wierzbicki said.
There will be plenty of targets for tea party enthusiasts in the coming year.
In Florida, for example, tea party activists are becoming deeply involved in the Republican Senate primary campaign, in which former state House Speaker Marco Rubio has emerged as the insurgent conservative challenger to Gov. Charlie Crist, the moderate GOP front-runner.
"The next fight is clearly in Florida, where the primary pits an establishment, big-government Republican, Crist, against a young, principled conservative, Rubio," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks. "I think the tea party movement will prove again that grass-roots organization and hard work will overcome big bucks from the [National] Republican Senatorial Committee."
Mr. Rubio has cut Mr. Crist's 30-point lead in half and closed the fundraising gap, and is attracting support from some of the right's biggest names, such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, as well as from the Club for Growth, the anti-tax Washington group that also strongly backed Mr. Hoffman in New York.
In California, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has said that Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who heads the party's 2010 Senate efforts, urged her to run against Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Democrat incumbent, because he thinks California state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore would not be able to win the general election.
In response, conservative blogs led by RedState.com launched a fundraising drive on Mr. DeVore's behalf. Mr. DeVore, who is labeling Mrs. Fiorina a "big-government liberal," has pulled even with her in a recent poll of Republican primary voters.
Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson has received fundraising help from some of the most senior GOP senators, but his primary rival for the state's open Senate seat, anti-tax activist Rand Paul, outraised him in the third quarter of 2009.
Mr. Paul, son of Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican and anti-tax firebrand, raised more than $1 million in the third quarter, compared with Mr. Grayson's $643,000.
Jon Ward contributed to this report.
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