Just when the Republican Party appears poised for big pickups in the 2010 midterm elections, a ragtag band of grass-roots conservatives millions strong and fiercely motivated, but with no national leader, threatens to split the Grand Old Party in two.
Leading figures in the burgeoning "tea party" movement complain they are being ignored by the Republican National Committee, despite having already shown their clout in taking down moderate Republicans in a New York special House race and the Florida Republican Party hierarchy.
"I have called into the RNC many times, and they still haven't called me back," said Dale Robertson, head of TeaParty.org, which he claims has upwards of 7 million members. "I've called them, lots of times. I called them this morning. I called them yesterday. It's like they ignore you as they try to figure out a strategy on how to defeat you."
Several other tea party activists talked of a similar lack of communication, despite an NBC-Wall Street Journal survey last month that just 28 percent of voters had a positive view of Republicans, compared with 35 percent for Democrats and 41 percent who report positive feelings about the tea party movement.
"It's important for Republicans to recognize they can only be a majority if they find a way to absorb the tea party movement and absorb the anger against Washington and against big government," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told The Washington Times. "That's the only way the Republicans can prosper in the next few years."
The author of the "Contract With America," which gave Republicans control of Congress in the 1994 elections, has learned his lesson. He supported the liberal Republican candidate in November's New York special congressional race, only to see the party pick knocked out of the race by a conservative third-party candidate with strong tea party support.
The split ended up costing Republicans the seat, with a Democrat winning narrowly in the upstate district for the first time in more than a century.
The recent resignation of Florida Republican state party Chairman Jim Greer was also seen as in part as a tea party victory. Mr. Greer was closely linked to moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who is locked in a tight Senate primary duel with conservative favorite Marco Rubio, the former speaker of the Florida House.
"Everywhere I go around the country, I talk with tea party leaders, and I think it's absolutely imperative for Republicans and tea party people to find common ground," Mr. Gingrich said.
In Massachusetts, state Sen. Scott Brown's U.S. Senate bid highlights the strength a unified front poses even in Democratic strongholds. Both tea partiers and the Republican establishment are feverishly working to help Mr. Brown stun the political world by winning the Senate seat held for more than 4½ decades by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who died in August.
But tea party leaders say they want more than just talk. They want conservative candidates who oppose big government, higher taxes, illegal immigration and runaway federal spending — themes Mr. Brown has tapped to surge ahead of the Democratic establishment's candidate in Tuesday's special election, state Attorney General Martha Coakley.
"We're not going to join them. They need to join us," Mr. Robertson said.
"It's time to take control," conservative activist Eric Odom declared on the Web site of his political action committee, Liberty First PAC, which helped organize the first tea party protests last spring.
"We should take over the GOP," said Matt Kibbe, president of the FreedomWorks, a group chaired by former House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, Texas Republican.
FreedomWorks has helped organize many of the biggest tea party protests, but Mr. Kibbe said he thinks the RNC and its chairman, Michael S. Steele, are "working quite hard trying to figure out how to connect with this movement."
It will be a hard sell, he said. "I think the tea party [movement] is looking for a credible commitment to the ideas of limited government and fiscal conservatism, which is how the Republican Party lost all these guys in the first place," Mr. Kibbe said with a laugh.
But other leaders said they've never talked with anyone from the Republican Party. Contacted for this story, an RNC spokeswoman said she would call back with examples of contacts between the party and tea party organizers. She never did.
The RNC's Mr. Steele, facing challenges to his leadership from within the party bureaucracy, has claimed his outreach to the tea party and other conservative groups outside the party is part of the reason for the tension inside the Republican hierarchy.
"I'm the guy that they're afraid of because guess what? I'm a tea partier, I'm a town haller, I'm a grass-rootser," he told a St. Louis radio show earlier this month.
The tea party movement is amorphous and, in many ways, not a party at all. It's a grass-roots movement that caught fire across America shortly after President Obama took office, fueled by opposition to the massive economic stimulus bill and to Mr. Obama's signature health care reform initiative. A dozen or more groups sprang up almost overnight, and now there are hundreds of local and state-level groups, some with leaders in every county of a state.
In theory, that could be a major plus for Republicans, who proved unable to match the national outreach Mr. Obama orchestrated in winning the 2008 presidential election.
"The tea party movement is this massive, leaderless movement that is already organized in all the battleground states," Mr. Kibbe said. "So you literally have this standing army of people that are more than capable of doing all of the traditional get-out-the-vote, voter-advocacy efforts that the party has struggled to build with lots of money and lots of energy and lots of resources.
"So basically, the party needs to step up on that platform and put out candidates who are appealing to this massive energy that's out there," he said.
Still, that "energy" is not yet channeled into the Republican Party, and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a tea party favorite, doesn't appear ready to help. She rejected an invitation to appear at this year's Conservative Political Action Committee convention, long the gathering point for conservative Republicans, and instead accepted a keynote speaker role at what's being billed as the first national tea party convention, to be held next month in Nashville, Tenn.
Some Republican leaders, like Mr. Gingrich, say the GOP need not take over the insurgent movement, but must instead simply focus on common goals.
"They can be allies of the Republicans without being identified as Republicans," the former speaker said. "And that's important. It allows conservative Democrats and people who are independents, but who are fed up with [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid and Obama, to find an interim home."
But a failure to persuade the tea party movement to join forces with the Republican Party or at least not to war openly with Republicans could be disastrous, he said.
"Then you'd have a third party that was real, and that would frankly be a huge mistake by Republicans. Republicans need to learn how to work with allies, not try to dictate to them," Mr. Gingrich said.
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