Leaders of Tennessee’s Tea Party movement came to the legislature Wednesday to begin exercising their clout with the new Republican majority, warning they will try to unseat lawmakers who resist.
“The enthusiasm of the Tea Party is, if anything, ramping up,” one leader, the anti-tax crusader Ben Cunningham, told reporters in the Legislative Plaza. “People want to get involved. They want to hold their government accountable. They want their elected representatives to conduct themselves according to Tea Party principles.”
The Tea Party began in Tennessee at a 2009 anti-tax rally that drew hundreds of protesters outside the Capitol. After November’s elections, in which victorious Republican candidates across the state adhered to the Tea Party line, the movement clearly isn’t on the outside anymore.
The Tea Party’s success hasn’t been complete. Its candidate for governor, Sen. Ron Ramsey, finished third in last August’s GOP primary. The Tea Party also backed the loser, Rep. Glen Casada, in the contest for House speaker. The more moderate Republican Rep. Beth Harwell was elected speaker Tuesday on the opening day of the 107th General Assembly.
But Tea Party activists said Wednesday they see themselves as a formidable force in state politics. They promised to recruit challengers to run in 2012 election primaries against rebellious Republicans.
“As people respond to us or don’t respond to us, we will judge them on the basis of what is constitutional and what’s in the best interest of America and its values, and we will go into the next election cycle working with the people who have helped us and against those who haven’t,” said Hal Rounds of Fayette County.
Only about a dozen activists showed up at the legislature, fanning out to meet individually with lawmakers. Cunningham said the cold weather kept away a larger crowd. He said 150 Tea Party leaders from across the state met in Knoxville two weeks ago to agree on a set of legislative priorities. Among them:
• Rejecting national health care reform. In a policy statement, which the activists planned to give to legislators, the Tea Party called the law “an insult to constitutional principles and the citizens of the United States.”
• Amending the state constitution to require the popular election of the Tennessee attorney general, who now is appointed by the state Supreme Court. Attorney General Bob Cooper has angered the Tea Party by refusing to join a lawsuit by various states to challenge the national health care law.
• “Educating students the truth of America.” In its statement, the Tea Party said, “neglect and outright ill will have distorted the teaching of the history and character of the United States” and demanded that public schools teach “the sacrifices and contributions of the Founding Fathers and their generation …”
“The Tea Party is here to stay,” Cunningham said. “This is the beginning. We’ll be back and we’ll be watching.”