WASHINGTON — Without question, the tea party movement has more passion and energy than any other force in American politics today. But it also has no coherent central organization or plan, raising questions about its potential impact on the 2012 elections.
"They are the most powerful emotional force in American politics," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, "but they're disorganized and have no long-term strategy."
Tea party loyalists proudly concede that they're a diffuse, diverse bunch who are bound by a commitment to smaller, less intrusive government. They abhor government authority that's too big and dictatorial. They even recoil at the notion of any hierarchical structure controlling their own effort.
"That's part of the beauty of the movement," said Vincent Harris, a Republican consultant who's also based in Austin.
There are three prominent national organizations that pledge allegiance to the tea party _Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation and Tea Party Patriots — as well as dozens of local groups that may or may not be affiliated with any of them.
There's little evidence that these groups want to band together to elect like-minded candidates. They seem to include too many folks like Jeff Luecke, a co-organizer of the Dubuque (Iowa) Tea Party.
"We don't follow any of those national groups," he said. "We like the fact that we're not taking orders."
Who are these guys?
Tea Party Nation is headed by Judson Phillips, 52, a Nashville lawyer who grew increasingly unhappy with President George W. Bush. The 2003 Medicare prescription-drug benefit, Phillips said, was a budget-buster. When the GOP nominated John McCain, whom Phillips saw as too eager to work with Democrats, as its presidential candidate in 2008, Phillips was steamed.
In February 2009, he noticed CNBC's Rick Santelli's now-iconic rant against President Barack Obama's housing-rescue plan and plea for a new tea party to challenge runaway government spending and overregulation.
Phillips started a website, aiming to bring in revenue from advertising and trying to create a profit-making group that would promote those ideas. He's politically active; he recently endorsed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for the Republican presidential nomination.
"I am the luckiest guy in the world," Phillips said. "I get to blog full time. I used to get up and go out and not look forward to what I had to do. Now the first thing I do every day is what I want."
Tea Party Nation is the most outspoken of the national groups, drawing attention earlier this year when Phillips called for a GOP primary challenge to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. The speaker, Phillips said, "simply wishes to be manager in chief of the welfare state." Tea party activist David Lewis will challenge Boehner.
A second national group, the Tea Party Patriots, organizes the old-fashioned way — by telephone. After Santelli's rant, 20 people took part in a call, convened by a Twitter hash tag, and formed the group. Now, every Monday, group co-founders Mark Meckler, 49, of Grass Valley, Calif., and Jenny Beth Martin, 41, of Atlanta, conduct a conference call with supporters across the country.
Meckler, a lawyer and entrepreneur, hadn't participated in organized politics but he grew increasingly angry with Republicans. He got particularly annoyed with Bush when the president pushed the 2008 financial institution bailout called the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a plan that many experts credited with saving the economy from free fall.
Not Meckler. "Bush was abandoning free-market principles in order to save the free market," he said. The Tea Party Patriots measure success by pointing to how they helped issues become the subject of national debate. Among them: this summer's battle over raising the debt limit.
"A lot of people didn't know anything about the debt ceiling. Now they do, and they got together and influenced the system," Meckler said.
One of the Patriots' major themes is a return to true constitutional government. "We've created a dependency society. The Founding Fathers never intended to have us dependent on the government for our economic well-being," Meckler said.
His group claims more than 3,500 chapters around the nation.
The third national group _the Tea Party Express — is the most unabashedly political. Its political action committee raised and spent about $7.7 million in the 2010 election cycle, and it plans to back candidates again next year. It co-sponsored the Sept. 12 GOP presidential debate in Tampa, Fla.
Its co-founder Sal Russo, 64, is a veteran California Republican strategist who worked in Ronald Reagan's 1966 gubernatorial campaign.
"We the people are going to choose the next nominee for president, not the Republican Party," said Amy Kremer, the group's chairman. She won't rule out any of the major candidates, not even former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose moderate record makes some other tea party sympathizers seethe.
So does the Tea Party Express, in some quarters.
"It's a Republican political action committee, and Sal Russo has a history of working for Republicans-in-name-only," protested Meckler of Tea Party Patriots.
Russo's group helped boost the successful 2010 underdog Senate bid of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, and it played a big role in defeating or forcing out seven mainstream Republican Senate candidates last year.
Only three tea party activists won general Senate elections. Others lost races in which the GOP had been given a good chance of winning.
On the other hand, tea party support helped elect dozens of Republicans to the House of Representatives, where congressional districts tend to be drawn to maximize a political party's strength. In all, 87 Republican freshmen were elected and the party gained control of the House.
Russo's group has targeted four senators it wants defeated next year, including Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine and Richard Lugar of Indiana.
"If you don't change the players, you're not going to effect change," Russo said. Change won't come instantly, he said; it can mean building support slowly over the years, and affecting even the more mainstream candidates.
Asked how he could be successful promoting federal candidates when the movement is so diffuse and diverse, Russo said, "2010. The system works."
Their influence on Republican politics this year is evident. Harris, the Austin-based Republican consultant, points to Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and notes that they've adopted a lot of tea party ideas and lingo. In his economic plan Sept. 6, Romney noted, "The rise of the tea party is a classic instance of the self-correcting forces of American democracy in action."
Perry wrote in his November 2010 book, "Fed Up!" that "I believe that government is best when it is closest to the people," and "We are fed up with a federal government that has the arrogance to preach to us about how to live our lives."
A McClatchy-Marist poll conducted Sept. 13-14 found that 36 percent of tea party supporters backed Perry, with Romney second at 17 percent. Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who founded the House of Representatives Tea Party Caucus, trailed at 12 percent.
For all that, being a tea party favorite is no guarantee of victory.
"In smaller-turnout primaries and caucuses, the tea party can be effective. But in general elections, less so," said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
In their favor: Movement people are deeply committed to their ideology, they're willing to do the unglamorous work of politics — such as knocking on doors — and many see themselves at the forefront of a new kind of politics.
Working against them: "There's a certain libertarianism that keeps them independent," Sabato said. They're unwilling to take orders, and therefore hard to organize.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY