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."
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