Tea party activists were out in full force to protest the government at a national rally on Tax Day in 2010. But this year, tea party leaders are admitting its harder to protest when Republicans control the House and they are refocusing the movement to look ahead to the 2012 presidential race.
Washington may have seen its last national, anti-tax tea party.
For the first time since the tea party movement began two years ago, its members have not announced plans to storm the National Mall with “Don’t Tread on Me” flags on April 15. No tea party groups have applied for permits at the popular protest locale that day, according to the National Park Service.
In the past, Tax Day rallies with thousands of small-government advocates served as a symbolic show of force against Democratic control. Now that Republicans control the House, the fervor for national protest appears to have waned.
Some tea party leaders say national rallies are a tired custom and they have shifted their focus from federal to state and local issues.
“At first we started with protests because we didn’t know what else to do. When everybody saw that protests weren’t achieving the objective, which is reining in this ridiculous spending, people went to work understanding how to affect policy and legislation,” said John Jaggers of the Northern Virginia Tea Party, which has been hosting local candidates’ forums in lieu of rallies.
Other conservative leaders have found it more difficult to draw tea partyers to D.C. now that Republicans have more say in running the government.
“It’s a little harder on offense. On defense, it’s more unifying. You’re simply saying no,” said Tim Phillips, president of the conservative nonprofit Americans for Prosperity. He estimated that 1,000 activists — a fraction of the crowds at rallies during the health care debate — came to his group’s protest last week over the looming government shutdown.
Grass-roots movements often struggle to keep up momentum after a win such as the Republican gains in the midterm elections, according to David Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California at Irvine and author of “The Politics of Protest.”
“When you have the people you elected working for you, the urgency of taking it to the streets diminishes,” Meyer said. “It’s quite likely that the tea party people realized that it would be a bad thing to have a national tea party that’s smaller than last year’s demonstration. Going out to the states is a way of making virtue out of necessity.”
But Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, two large national groups that have helped tea partyers organize D.C. rallies in the past, defended their focus on the states as strategic.
As newly elected conservative governors make their mark on state budgets, standoffs have ensued between unions and tea parties in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.
“We think the state-level events are crucial,” AFP’s Phillips said, adding that local events still have an effect on Congress because “Members tend to listen to events back home.”
The Wisconsin standoff is the main reason why the Tea Party Express will not host a national rally this year, according to Amy Kremer, the national umbrella group’s co-chairwoman. The group has devoted its resources to supporting conservatives in the Midwestern swing state.
“That’s pretty much ground zero right now, and I would say it’s the beginning of the 2012 campaign,” Kremer said, calling the state focus “part of the maturity of the movement. People are realizing it’s great to have these rallies but we need to engage on these things that are going on at the local and state level as well as the national level.”
The Tea Party Express does plan to sponsor a Tax Day rally in Tampa, where tea party favorite and freshman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is slated to speak.
The focus of that event is expected to be on electing more conservatives to the Senate in 2012. Kremer’s group is kicking off a national bus tour in August to rally activists for those elections.
“There’s only so much that can be done when you only control the House,” Kremer said. “Our objective is to take back the Senate and the White House.”
The Tea Party Express is not the only group in the movement with an eye on the ballot box. The Greater Boston Tea Party has invited presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty to address a gathering there on Friday.
“I think that people are maybe looking to be inspired again,” said Christen Varley, the event’s organizer. “We invited Pawlenty to present to the people in Massachusetts a message we don’t already hear, which is for fiscal discipline and limited government.”
Last year, Boston was home to a large Tax Day rally sponsored by the Tea Party Express where former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) spoke.
This year, Varley said, she wants the activists who attend to go beyond hearing speakers to signing petitions and learning about the state’s immigration and education initiatives.
President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign deployed similar tactics — making sure rally attendees were engaged with voting activities such as texting their friends or learning how to participate in caucuses and not just listening to speeches.
“We’re scaling back a little bit from last year when Tea Party Express was here with the circus,” she said.
“I think 5,000 people will come out on a Friday afternoon to hear from a potential presidential candidate. If we can get them to do some sort of activity while they’re here that serves a purpose, that’s reason enough.”
The Tea Party Patriots, the rival national group to the Tea Party Express, has also tried to shift focus away from rallies.
Not only is the group downplaying Tax Day, its leaders have also announced that they will skip any rallies around Sept. 11 this year out of respect for the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
“If we only held rallies, I don’t think that we’d actually achieve anything other than people making their voices heard,” said Jenny Beth Martin, a national coordinator for the Patriots. “It takes action after the rally to change the debate.”