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Has IRS Probe Re-Energized the Tea Party?

The tea party movement, after heating up to a roaring boil in the 2010 election cycle, diminished to a simmer over the past few years.

Some of the movement’s allies who helped Republicans retake the House in 2010 were defeated two years later, President Barack Obama was re-elected by a wide margin to serve a second term in the White House, and House Tea Party Caucus founder Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., went straight from a failed run for the GOP presidential nomination to a narrow re-election to hold her seat.

A Rasmussen poll earlier this year revealed that the movement was at its lowest popularity since its inception, with only 8 percent of respondents identifying themselves as tea party supporters, down from 24 percent in 2010.

But in the wake of revelations that tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status were among those targeted by the IRS for extra scrutiny, things are starting to look up for the national coalition of lawmakers, political operatives and concerned citizens who preach for smaller government, advocate lower taxes and fight against infringements on civil liberties.

For perhaps the first time in three years, tea party leaders are seeing a renewed recognition of their relevance, which they anticipate will bring back old supporters, enlist new allies and perhaps even broaden the political base.

“There’s no question” that the movement has been reinvigorated, Bachmann said several hours after a tea party news conference that attracted nearly three dozen congressional lawmakers and representatives from every leading tea party group across the country.

Started with the slogan “Taxed Enough Already,” the tea party has, since its 2010 start, catered primarily to those on the far right who slam excessive taxes and efforts to tighten gun laws. The movement arose as part of the backlash against the 2009 health care debate that offended many who believed that government should not make the types of demands of its citizens that Obamacare would.

Now more moderates could be drawn into the fold, Bachmann said, in part because the IRS scandal is so difficult to renounce.

Democrats have joined with Republicans in vilifying the agency’s actions as a united, bipartisan front with the House Ways and Means and Oversight and Government Reform committees scheduling hearings on the matter. The Senate Finance Committee, helmed by Montana Democrat Max Baucus, has also scheduled a hearing for next week.

In this particular case, politicians of all stripes are finding it easy to sympathize with the tea party groups that claim mistreatment by IRS officials.

“This happened because of what appears to be missteps on the part of the administration to the point of flagrant abuse of power,” Bachmann said. “Constitution-oriented groups, they are inflamed right now and enraged right now.”

They do not want to cast themselves as victims, but rather as proactive warriors for their cause.

“We could see a very different outcome in 2014 that resembles that of 2010,” said Bachmann, who, along with other tea party leaders, has sought to tie the other scandals plaguing the Obama administration this week to potential converts.

At the Thursday news conference, Todd Cefaratti of made a tongue-in-cheek appeal to the journalists in attendance by referencing the circumstances surrounding the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press phone records.

“I’d like to be the first one to welcome the press as part of the tea party moment,” he said, suggesting that reporters’ vulnerability to government overreach should sound familiar.

The IRS and Justice matters also provide tea partyers the opening to discuss the systemic failures of a too-large government, which could appeal to libertarian-minded allies who might not have bought into the movement earlier on.

“We need to simplify our laws, and we need to downsize the federal government,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, on Thursday morning.

Tea party activists say they wouldn’t have wished for bad things to happen, especially the four deaths of Americans in Benghazi, Libya, last September — another issue congressional Republicans are investigating with fervor.

It doesn’t mean, though, that they will pass on the opportunity to use all three events as leverage, as tea party ally Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., suggested.

“To the extent that the Benghazi scandal, the AP scandal, the IRS scandal, has provided the fuel necessary to rekindle the tea party fire,” Mulvaney said, “I got no problem with that.”

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