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Tea Party Re-Flexes Its Muscle

The state of the tea party evokes Mark Twain: Reports of its death were an exaggeration.

Tea party activists who say they deliberately sat out the fiscal cliff debate are ready to reassert themselves as Congress and the Obama administration take up the debt ceiling and automatic spending cuts under the sequester.

The Tea Party Patriots, a national umbrella organization that claims 15 million supporters, is urging its members to confront lawmakers in their districts. They want Congress to let the $109 billion in cuts stand and not increase the government’s borrowing power. And with an eye toward 2014, the nonprofit is soliciting donations and identifying targets for its newly formed political action committee.

“We have six or seven weeks to be influential here,” said Bill Pascoe, a Washington-based conservative strategist who provides weekly legislative updates to the Patriots.

“Get on their schedules, so that they understand that we are not going away, that the movement is growing up a bit,” added Jenny Beth Martin, the Patriots’ co-founder, in a conference call with supporters Sunday night.

Activists such as Martin are warning followers not to openly advocate a government shutdown as a way of resolving the debt limit talks.

During the fiscal cliff showdown, tea party activists were silent, only going public after a deal was struck to chastise those who voted for the package. They say that was all part of a plan to highlight what they see as Speaker John A. Boehner’s political weaknesses — and then deny him another term as speaker.

That plan failed, but as CQ Roll Call has reported, the attempted coup highlights a widespread and sustained opposition to the leadership of the Republican Party.

Scholars and activists say it is a mistake to cite recent blows, including the shake-up at the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, as evidence that the movement has met its end. After all, most House Republicans backed by the tea party in 2010 were re-elected in November.

“The tea party has to be understood as a pincer movement,” said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard University political scientist who has studied the movement since its inception in 2009.

While grass-roots activists push rigid, uncompromising candidates into primaries, well-funded Washington groups work to oust those who do compromise. “You just have to pick off a few of them in Congress, and the rest panic,” she said.

In 2010, Skocpol documented the existence of 900 tea party organizations that met regularly around the country. A year later, 600 remained. “That’s a big survival rate for voluntarily organized groups,” she said.

Scholars compare the tea party to the activists of the Christian right, who were first regarded as outliers in the early 1990s but successfully wedged conservative social issues into the modern-day Republican Party platform.

“The tea party hasn’t died; it’s morphed,” said Jack Pitney, an expert on congressional politics and the Republican Party at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “The two political parties are like the Borg in Star Trek. They assimilate and change with movements.”

Even the Washington groups best known for carrying the tea party’s mantle — FreedomWorks, Heritage Action and the Tea Party Express — existed long before the movement.

A conference this weekend hosted by the Tea Party Patriots in Myrtle Beach, S.C., underscores that integration. The two-day event will feature a video address from former Sen. Jim DeMint, the newly appointed president of The Heritage Foundation, and Matt Kibbe, the executive director of FreedomWorks, as well as South Carolina Reps. Jeff Duncan, Mick Mulvaney and Tom Rice, a freshman representing the newly created 7th Congressional District.

With a PAC at its disposal, the group, which raised $12.2 million from June 2010 to May 2011, will be free to make direct contributions to campaigns and fund express-advocacy ads.

It will likely put some of that money behind a candidate to replace newly appointed Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who gave up his House seat to replace DeMint. Candidates have yet to file, but former Gov. Mark Sanford seems to have strong backing from tea party activists.

But some activists recognize that the phrase “tea party” itself may have become toxic and are working to soften their rhetoric while maintaining a staunch no-compromise stance.

Cindy Lucas of Stuart, Fla., said she would not include the movement’s name in a newsletter her tea party group was distributing.

“I’m going to try a little bit of language change,” she said during the conference call Sunday. “I’m trying to gather more young people, more independent thinkers.”

Prominent Democrats, including Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York, continue to blame tea party activists for gridlock in Congress.

“So which is it for them? Are we dead or are we to blame? We’re the most powerful nonexistent group in the country,” the Tea Party Patriots’ Martin said.

An earlier version mistakenly stated that Rep. Tom Price was attending the conference in South Carolina. The story has also been updated to reflect a programming change regarding Jim DeMint.

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