Tea party leaders say they refuse to be the scapegoats for the drubbing Republicans took on Election Day, claiming it was the party establishment — not their insurgent movement — that cost the party seats in the House and Senate and returned President Obama to the White House.
In fact, various branches of the grass-roots movement vow to reassert themselves on the local and nation levels as Congress begins talks aimed at averting the "fiscal cliff." They say their call for limited government is more relevant than ever before.
"As far as the tea party is concerned, we are still here," said Amy Kremer, leader of the Tea Party Express. "We may not be out on the streets with the colorful signs like 2010, but we are here, we are engaged and we are going to continue to fight. We never thought this was a short-term process. It is going to take a long time to turn it around."
Judson Phillips, head of Tea Party Nation, said the tea party's first order of business is to rebut Republicans who want to blame the movement for their poor performance at the ballot box.
"They went well out of their way to ignore us, marginalize us and pretend we did not exist, and they gave us the most liberal nominee in the history of the Republican Party," Mr. Phillips said, taking particular aim at Karl Rove, the mastermind behind former President George W. Bush's career and founder of American Crossroads, a super PAC that spent more than $100 million in the campaign but had few successes to show for it.
Keli Carender, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, also said she felt Republicans were trying to blame the tea party and that her group will put a renewed focus on local elections.
"We tried the last four years to go from the top and working with Congress," she said. "I think we have not been as successful as we like. It is an impermeable steel bubble. We are really, really realizing that in order to have an impact it is going to have to come from the ground up — from the cities, the counties and the states."
The tea party flexed its muscle in the 2010 midterm elections by knocking off veteran Republican lawmakers in primaries, including Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah, and sending a new class of fiscal conservatives to Capitol Hill — a group that included Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania.
They also played a major role in catapulting Republicans back into control of the U.S. House. The tea party, though, also pushed some candidates, including Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, who lost seats that some political observers felt Republicans would have won had they put forward better candidates.
The election this year proved to be more of a mixed bag for candidates supported by the tea party.
Rep. Michele Bachmann won another term in office, and voters pushed Sen.-elect Ted Cruz to victory in Texas. But those wins were offset by some high-profile flops in conservative states carried by presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Richard Mourdock blasted onto the political scene after knocking off six-term Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Utah in the GOP primary. But Mr. Mourdock lost in the general election after saying that when a rape results in a pregnancy "it is something that God intended to happen."
Republicans also saw another pickup slip away when Sen. Claire McCaskill fended off Rep. W. Todd Akin, who said the female body has ways of rejecting pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape."
In the lower chamber, tea party casualties included Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois and Rep. Nan A.S. Hayworth of New York. Things got worse this week when Rep. Allen B. West, Florida Republican, conceded that he lost his bid for re-election to his Democratic challenger, Patrick Murphy.
Mr. Romney's loss and the party's failure to bolster its numbers on Capitol Hill in an election that looked tailor-made for a strong Republican showing has generated some soul-searching and finger-pointing in party ranks, and reopening some old divides.
Conservative columnist Michael Barone said the tea party "brings some talented people into politics -- think of Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson for example -- but it also brings some wackos and weirdos and witches, and we put too many of them on the ticket."
Mr. Rove weighed in by saying the "offensive comments about rape by GOP Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana gave the media an excuse to put social issues at the election's center in a way that badly hurt the entire party, as well as costing Republicans two Senate seats."
Tea partyers said establishment candidates also fared poorly in the elections, pointing to the losses of George Allen in Virginia, Connie Mack in Florida, Tommy G. Thompson in Wisconsin and Scott P. Brown in Massachusetts.
"More establishment candidates lost compared to tea party losers," Ms. Carender said.
Whatever the case, Mr. Phillips said the primary job of the tea party in the coming weeks is to make sure that House Republicans do not surrender during negotiations to avert the "fiscal cliff."
"The problems we have with the deficit are not problems that result from a revenue shortage," he said. "It is spending in excess. So we have to change the narrative and we have to get the Republicans on Capitol Hill to stand firm against not only new tax increases, which will destroy the economy, but also to cut spending."
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