By Anna Fifield, Financial Times
America’s rambunctious “tea party patriots” were in celebration mode on Wednesday, after their man Ken Buck beat the Republican establishment candidate for the party’s Senate nomination in Colorado, handing the movement its fourth victory of the primary season.
Mr Buck, a gaffe-prone county district attorney, narrowly beat Jane Norton, the former lieutenant-governor backed by the Republican party, who had outfundraised Mr Buck by more than $2m.
“Get a good night’s sleep, because for the next 83 days we are going to unite the Republican party,” Mr Buck told supporters on Tuesday night, referring to the time left until November’s midterm congressional elections. Reunite it under the tea party banner, that is.
“Tea party patriots” – a burgeoning movement pressing for limited government and lower taxes, with Sarah Palin as their poster girl – are having a profound impact on the face of the Republican party.
In addition to Mr Buck, they have propelled their candidates to win primaries in Utah, Kentucky and Nevada, as well as in Florida – by default when the presumptive Republican nominee pulled out.
“We’re trying to take back the parties and put responsible people in control of them,” says Stephen Sabolich, a conservative activist from Cleveland, Ohio, who this week attended a tea party boot camp organised by FreedomWorks, a conservative group promoting “grassroots” opposition to the Obama administration.
“We’re taking over the parties. We’ve been very successful with the Republican party so far, but it’s a little more difficult with the Democrats,” says Mr Sabolich, 66.
In one of the training rooms was a board with a quote by Samuel Adams, one of the founding fathers: “It does not require a majority to prevail but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brushfires in people’s minds.”
Last August, tea party activists dominated the political news agenda, organising rowdy protests round the country and taking over the “town hall” meetings that lawmakers hold in their home districts during the summer recess.
Although healthcare, a lightning rod issue, is not at the top of the agenda this year, the looming midterms mean tea parties will be a potent political force in the next three months.
The activists are drawing up scorecards in electorates, knocking on doors and setting up phone banks to spur voters to support candidates who have vowed to uphold tea party principles.
They ask candidates to sign their “Contract from America”, a tea party manifesto designed to hold politicians responsible, formulated in response to the top-down “Contract with America” written by the Republican leadership when they took over Congress in 1994.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, is optimistic that conservatives can win the House, and perhaps the Senate, in November.
“Politically the elections will be a repeat of 1994 but it will be fundamentally different because these [tea party] folks are organised and are in all 50 states so it’s sustainable after the election,” he says.
The activists say they are aiming not just to install their preferred candidates on Republican tickets but to “shift the centre of gravity” within the party.