Tea Party Lays Groundwork for Republican Bloodbath

The tea party must work harder in 2014 to maintain its influence.

A tea party supporter protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court on the third day of oral arguments over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act on March 28, 2012, in Washington, D.C.
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The tea party has been warning voters about Obamacare since it took back the House of Representatives in 2010. Now, in the midst of a sloppy health care rollout, the far right movement is more motivated than ever to mobilize its supporters and challenge even those within their own party who stand in their way.

From Kansas to Kentucky, conservative campaign groups are launching a two-pronged strategy against the Republican establishment: a grassroots campaign paired with a multimillion-dollar television strategy aimed at replacing entrenched GOP incumbents with fiscal hawks.

Ahead of the midterm elections, the tea party is bracing itself for matchups that could determine the viability of its movement going forward and will set the tone for how much influence the tea party will have when it comes to picking the Republican Party's nominee in 2016.

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With so much at stake, it is no longer enough for conservative groups to rely haphazardly on a hodgepodge of disjointed tea party chapters and rogue constitutionalists gathered across the country, experts say.

"This election is when the tea party movement will professionalize how it engages in politics," says Drew Ryun, the political director of the Madison Project, a conservative campaign group. "We are getting a game plan."

The Madison Project rolled out the first phase of its 2014 operation Monday, announcing it would open five "get out the vote" centers in Kentucky to work on behalf Matt Bevin, the conservative businessman challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a May primary.

The announcement is just the beginning. Ryun says the Madison Project will launch mirror efforts in Idaho, Kansas and Mississippi, other battlegrounds where the GOP establishment and conservative fringe will go head to head.

Ryun concedes the tea party will never have the hefty financial backing the establishment enjoys from deep-pocketed donors like Karl Rove. But as a former strategist for the Republican National Committee, Ryun argues mobilizing support on the ground is the more powerful tool in the end.

"A targeted 'get out the vote' plan is a great equalizer," Ryun says. "I don't think it is any secret that the stakes for the 2014 election cycle are extremely high. That is why it is important our groups know how to win in the trenches."

Keli Carender, a national grassroots coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, says that while she still loves the "beautiful chaotic mess of people" who make up the tea party, she agrees in some places the movement could "stand to strategize a little bit more."

"When it first started, it was just a bunch of people who had never been involved in politics. We believed the Republicans, for instance, that if we gave them the House and the Senate they would repeal Obamacare and cut spending," Carender says. "We were really starry eyed and naive people who didn't realize how dirty politics is."

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While the Madison Project focuses on mobilizing support on the ground, other conservative coalitions are attempting to raise enough money to change the game on the airwaves.

Conservative political action committees - like the Senate Conservative Fund - have grown increasingly aggressive in their efforts to raise money against sitting members of the Senate, a strategy that less than a decade ago would have been dismissed as in poor taste in the courteous corridors of the Senate.

Already, the Senate Conservative Fund has spent more than $2 million supporting conservative candidates in Senate races, four of whom are challenging sitting GOP lawmakers.

But establishment Republicans, who blame the tea party for a squandered opportunity to take back the White House and the Senate in 2012, are stepping up their game.

In a huff of frustration in December, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, turned the table of the conservative groups who had long pressured his members to dig in their heels instead of pitch in a hand to compromise. In front of dozens of reporters, Boehner unloaded on the groups who had been a thorn in his side since he captured the speaker's gavel in 2011.