JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
Two years ago, when Republicans chose candidates for the 2010 election, tea party groups dominated the scene, and rallies in towns across the country featured yellow “don’t tread on me” flags and tri-corner Revolutionary War hats.
When Colorado Republicans go to their precinct caucuses today to voice their preference for president, they will see how the tea party movement has evolved.
The rallies are few and far between. Some groups have disappeared, and others are smaller. But the remaining activists wield more influence within the Republican Party – especially its newest members of Congress.
“There are many groups out there that did their rallies. I think people realize it is time to move beyond rallies and into other efforts,” said Jeff Crank, head of the Colorado chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a national group that works closely with local tea party organizations.
Crank said he sees that some tea party groups are not as strong as they were in 2010, when the movement reached its fever pitch and helped 85 new Republican representatives win election to Congress.
But AFP is recruiting volunteers from the remaining groups to make phone calls and walk neighborhoods in an effort to call out President Barack Obama. Crank’s organization plans to hire four or five field coordinators in Colorado to rally volunteers against Obama.
On their own, the small, decentralized tea party groups have had a hard time getting involved in the presidential race.
“In a national election like this, we might not have as much influence in it. The media’s hard to beat,” said Wendy Cox, a coordinator of 4 Corners Liberty in Bayfield.
Tea party groups became famous for aggressive vetting of candidates, requesting numerous appearances and expecting answers to detailed questionnaires about politicians’ stance on various issues.
That is still happening, Cox said.
“All we can do is educate locally,” she said. “We’ve still got to keep marching no matter what.”
The Bayfield group has been drawing 30 to 50 people to its monthly meetings, she said.
The Southern Colorado Tea Party, a Pueblo group, does not endorse presidential candidates, but it held regular straw polls to gauge the preferences of its members, and candidates rose and fell just like they did nationally. Herman Cain did well until his campaign collapsed, said Sheldon Bloedorn, the group’s chairman.
Four candidates remain – Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.
“None of them are, in fact, what I would call a tea party candidate,” said Bloedorn, who emphasized that he was sharing his personal opinion and not speaking for the group.
But tea party groups still can have an effect on Congress.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, courted tea party support in his successful 2010 election, and he still sends a representative to the Southern Colorado Tea Party’s monthly meetings.
“As far as the tea party’s influence, I think the primary influence is going to be in Congress,” Bloedorn said.
Tipton’s opponent in the 2010 Republican primary, Bob McConnell, became active in politics through the tea party movement. He is supporting an unaffiliated candidate, Tisha Casida of Pueblo, in the 2012 race against his old adversary, Tipton. Democrat Sal Pace also is in the race.
McConnell is disappointed that the person he viewed as the true tea party candidate for president – Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann – dropped out of the race.
And while the groups may not be as visible this year, he still senses a “tea party energy.”
“That exists. That is out there in a powerful but perhaps more subtle way than it was in 2009, 2010,” McConnell said.