ATLANTA — Tea party activists in Georgia helped kill a proposed sales tax increase that would have raised billions of dollars for transportation projects. In Pennsylvania, tea partyers pushed to have taxpayers send public school children to private schools. In Ohio, they drove a referendum to block state health insurance mandates.
These and other battles are evidence of the latest phase of the conservative movement, influencing state and local policy, perhaps more effectively than on a national level. Tea party organizers are refocusing, sometimes without the party label, to build broader support for their initiatives. The strategy has produced victories that activists say prove their staying power.
“I call it Tea Party 2.0,” said Amy Kremer, a Delta flight attendant who leads Tea Party Express. The California-based group, co-founded by GOP strategist Sal Russo, claims it’s the largest tea party political action committee.
The movement first showed its strength in Washington in 2009 as an umbrella for voters angry over President George W. Bush’s Wall Street rescue and President Barack Obama’s stimulus package and auto manufacturer bailout, as well as the health care debate.
The tea party has helped elect members of the House, but they’ve contributed to the stalemate on Capitol Hill. No single Republican presidential candidate captured tea partyers’ wholehearted support, despite angst over Mitt Romney and his moderate record while Massachusetts governor. Without a clear rival, Romney, author of the state health care overhaul that served as a model for Obama’s, emerged from a crowded field to challenge the Democratic incumbent in November. Romney gave the hard right at least a symbolic win by announcing Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, a tea party hero, as his running mate Saturday.
“What we’ve been doing is maturing,” Kremer said. “We are not out having rallies with all these signs with thousands of people. The work is happening on the ground.”
In Georgia, anti-tax activists from tea parties and other conservative groups helped persuade voters across much of the state, including metro Atlanta, to reject a penny-per-dollar sales tax increase for transportation spending. The idea had support from the state’s Republican governor and Atlanta’s Democratic mayor.
Some tea party leaders established the Transportation Leadership Coalition to lead opposition. Separately, Debbie Dooley of the national Tea Party Patriots formed an unlikely alliance with the Sierra Club and local NAACP leaders. “We don’t hesitate to reach out to Democrats or liberal groups when we agree on an issue, even if it’s for different reasons,” said Dooley, who is based in Georgia.
The opposition hired consultants, purchased state voter rolls, used social media and reached into Atlanta’s Democratic strongholds, not the usual tea party territory, to ensure the referendum failed. The July 31 vote was as overwhelming across the Atlanta region as it was in most rural parts of Georgia.
Dooley said her alliance plans to ask Georgia legislators to remove spending restrictions on existing taxes for Atlanta’s mass transit system. Separately, she has worked with left-leaning Common Cause to push for limits on what lobbyists spend on state lawmakers. They failed during the 2012 legislative session, but after Georgia voters overwhelmingly approved the idea in a nonbinding ballot question, the legislature’s most powerful Republican says he’s on board.
In Pennsylvania, the dominant conservative player in the school-choice debate, a cause dear to conservatives, was FreedomWorks, an initiative of former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey and powerful conservative financiers. Gov. Tom Corbett on June 30 signed a law for student tuition grants that are paid for by businesses that, in return, receive state tax credits.
Ana Puig, the FreedomWorks state director, said she put 34,000 miles on her car building public support for the grants. She visited tea party groups and anyone else who would listen, while also using conventional lobbying of legislators.
After the fall elections, Puig said, FreedomWorks will push to raise the $50 million program cap to $100 million. The long-term goal is traditional tuition vouchers paid directly by state tax money. “Change happens slowly,” Puig said. “We understand the value of incrementalism.”
Activists in Ohio forced the ballot initiative on health care by gathering more than 400,000 signatures and hiring consultants to get 100,000 more. Chris Littleton, a former tea party organizer, led the effort without the tea party label. The measure prevailed 2-to-1, he said, partly because the tea party name didn’t drive debate.
Littleton is now state director of American Majority. Founded by a former Bush aide, Ned Ryun, and financed by contributors, the organization trains conservative candidates and activists at the state and local level. Among Littleton’s next projects is collecting signatures to force a referendum that would bar employees in Ohio from being required to join a union as a condition of the job.
All of that suggests political seasoning beyond a nascent protest.
Littleton said the best way to understand the landscape is not to think of the tea party that waved signs and shouted at members of Congress, but instead of a “liberty movement” that has evolved. “The original tea party didn’t write the Declaration of Independence,” Littleton said. “Everybody with a brain has abandoned protest as the means to accomplish policy.”
The groups have had defeats and still face hurdles.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, a usual tea party ally, angered some conservatives by refusing deep cuts to public schools. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took on public employee unions and survived a recall election with tea party help, but spent considerable political energy merely to stay in office.
Kremer acknowledges that there always will be questions about the movement’s grass-roots credentials, given its ties to traditional GOP players and financial support from big Republican donors. “You can provide money to buy people tools,” Kremer said, “but you cannot buy their belief in something.”
Florida tea party activist Everett Wilkinson said the loose network faces challenges because its philosophy is anti-centralization. “A large, top-down organization can come up with a single narrative,” he said. “Being a grass-roots organization means we are all independent.”
But, Georgia’s Dooley said, “We are going to keep on with our agenda. If elected officials tell us no, we will go around them. We are going to keep coming back and keep coming back.”