The polls hadn’t even closed Tuesday when “tea party” activists in Nevada started sniping at each other over whether Sharron Angle, the soon-to-be GOP nominee for U.S. Senate, was the best candidate to bring down Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Virginia tea partiers vented on blogs and to reporters about the movement’s inability to coalesce around a single candidate in two House races, resulting in the nomination of establishment candidates instead.

The national tea party movement has never had a central organization or personality in charge; in fact, it has boasted the opposite. But Tuesday’s primary results provided fresh evidence of the network’s struggle to convert activist energy into winning results. Frustrated and lacking agreement on what to do next, self-identified tea party leaders say the movement is in danger of breaking apart before it ever really comes together.

“No one owns the tea party brand, and that’s kind of the problem,” said Brendan Steinhauser, grass-roots director for FreedomWorks, which organizes tea party groups. “In Virginia — it breaks my heart. You’ve got six self-appointed tea party candidates and one establishment guy. You’re not going to beat the establishment guy in that situation.”

Judson Phillips, founder of another national organization, Tea Party Nation, said some activists are acting like mainstream politicians. “It’s supposed to be something other than politics as usual, but some of these folks are only looking out for themselves and not for the country.”

The discord is not only striking races such as those in Virginia’s 2nd and 5th congressional districts, where large fields of tea party candidates lost the Republican nomination to better-organized establishment picks.


It is also evident in races where tea party candidates have won — including Nevada, where Angle cruised to victory Tuesday with endorsements from the Tea Party Express, FreedomWorks and the fiscally conservative Club for Growth.

Even more demoralizing for activists, perhaps, is that disapproval of the tea party is at an all-time high, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. The poll showed that 50 percent of Americans view the movement unfavorably, compared with 39 percent in March.

This wouldn’t be the first time an American political movement began to fade soon after an energetic start. And other movements — think Ross Perot — had the advantage of a charismatic leader. To survive, the tea party movement has an even steeper hill to climb because there is no central, guiding force.

In Virginia’s 5th District, Bill Hay, founder of the Charlottesville-based Jefferson Area Tea party, penned an op-ed piece in The Washington Post last Sunday criticizing local tea party activists for failing to coalesce around a single candidate.

Similarly, in the 2nd District, Karen Miner Hurd, the head of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, accused the three last-placed candidates of being “selfish” for not dropping out and coalescing behind her group’s preferred candidate, Ben Loyola.

In both districts, the establishment candidate won with less than 50 percent of the vote — meaning tea party activists might have prevailed if they’d rallied behind one candidate.


Yet even if it comes with a cost, many tea partiers are proud of the movement’s decentralized structure.

“We don’t want a leader,” said Barbee Kinnison of Henderson, Nev., who supported one of Angle’s Republican opponents, businessman Danny Tarkanian. Kinnison’s testy e-mail exchange with organizers of Tea Party Express was published in the blogosphere last week. “We like it being a collective group of voices. This is the first time in a generation when we feel like our voices are being heard.”

Phillips, the organizer from Tea Party Nation, went as far as to issue a statement before Tuesday’s primary reminding activists that Angle was not the only conservative in the race.

Angle has taken positions that even some Republicans say raise questions about her ability to beat Reid. She has supported a nuclear reprocessing facility at Yucca Mountain and a prison rehabilitation program promoted by the Church of Scientology and involving massage and saunas. She’d abolish the federal departments of Energy and Education.

And the opposition is already doing what it can to exploit the situation. New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, has said Angle appeals “to the fringe of her party.”

One bright spot for the tea party Tuesday was South Carolina, where tea party-backed candidates led the GOP nominations for governor — Nikki Haley — and three congressional districts. Trey Gowdy’s 4th District win was particularly sweet for the tea party because he bested incumbent Republican Bob Inglis.

None of the leaders in these four races reached 50 percent, however, so all will head to a runoff in two weeks.


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