Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's statement that tea party activists need to start "picking a party" is part of a "coordinated assault" against the conservative grass-roots movement by the Republican establishment, tea party leaders tell Newsmax.
A series of events this week have pushed some tea party leaders to the brink of firing back at GOP officials they see as potentially compromising their organizations' independent status.
"Anybody who expects tea party members to vote based on party lines fundamentally misunderstands the movement," says Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots and one of its national coordinators. "The tea party movement is made up of people who value principle above party."
This week's meeting between RNC Chairman Michael Steele and "tea party leaders" appeared to aggravate the growing divide. Most of the major tea party groups steered clear of the four-hour sessions, and some even suggested Steele was trying to "hijack" the movement for his own purposes.
Tea party insiders say that whenever the tea parties are portrayed as aligned with the GOP, the independents and disenchanted Democrats within the grass-roots movement feel alienated.
Publicly, Republican leaders insist they respect the movement's independence. But tea party leaders see indications their true intentions are otherwise.
"I think we are facing a coordinated assault by the GOP to a bend the tea parties toward them," Everett Wilkinson of the Tea Party Patriots tells Newsmax.
Palin's remarks are cited as a prime example. In a 45-minute speech to Republicans in Little Rock, Ark., Tuesday, she called the grass-roots protests a "grand movement," but encouraged its members to align with the GOP.
"Now the smart thing will be for independents who are such a part of this Tea Party movement to, I guess, kind of start picking a party," Palin said. "Which party reflects how that smaller, smarter government steps to be taken? Which party will best fit you? And then because the Tea Party movement is not a party, and we have a two-party system, they’re going to have to pick a party and run one or the other: ‘R’ or ‘D’."
Conservative direct-mail icon Richard Viguerie tweeted Friday: "Sarah Palin says Tea Partiers should pick a party. I strongly disagree. That will make it easy for Republicans to control Tea Partiers."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in a statement that appeared to echo Palin's remarks, told constituents at a town hall meeting in Salt Lake City that if tea party activists refuse to support moderate Republicans, they will split the Republican vote and "we are going to see more liberals elected."
According to one news account, Hatch's remark drew boos from Salt Lake City conservatives.
"It's our job to vote out people we don't like," one audience member yelled to Hatch, according to the Salt Lake City Tribune.
Meckler's reaction: "I would say Sen. Hatch should spend more time listening to his constitutes, rather than telling them how they need to vote."
Meckler is battling GOP encroachment on the tea party in his home state of California. California Republicans recently announced they would hold their own tea party event at an upcoming annual meeting.
"I think it just shows a gross misunderstanding of, and disrespect for, the movement," Meckler tells Newsmax. "The tea party is not related to any political party. For them to try to appropriate it and tie to their annual meeting shows a misunderstanding of what the tea party movement is all about."
One sign of growing friction: A group of activists on Friday held the first-ever tea party protest against the GOP. The sign-waving activists gathered at Boca Grande, Fla., to voice their opposition to what they perceive as GOP interference in the movement. Boca Grande is site of the RNC winter retreat being held this weekend on Florida's Gulf coast.
Those protesters tell Newsmax they have nothing against Republicans, but feel they need to send a message to GOP leaders to back off.
Tea party activists in South Carolina recently said they felt betrayed by state Republican leaders as well. They agreed to help the state GOP rebuild its base at the precinct level, in return for more support for fiscally conservative candidates. But when the deal was announced by state GOP leader Karen Floyd, tea party leaders cried foul. They said Floyd failed to make clear that the two organizations would remain separate.
Tea Party leaders tell Newsmax they're frustrated that some Republican leaders just don't appear to "get" their need to remain independent. One prominent Republican who apparently does understand is former top Bush administration strategist Karl Rove.
Rove told Fox News Friday afternoon that the tea parties would be well advised "to stay away from being co-opted by either political party…. Because it's a decentralized movement," he said, "it's a problem for Republicans if they attempt to [co-opt it]. They can't control it, but they become responsible for its excesses if they attempt to."
Rove pointed to the pro-life and pro-gun rights movements as examples of how to succeed by remaining independent. "These have been powerful because they have allies in both parties, not because they've been co-opted and have become an appendage of one party only," he said.
Just how far tea party leaders will go in challenging the Republican establishment, which focuses much more on getting loyal Republicans elected than on vetting their fiscal conservatism, is one of the major questions that could influence the outcome of November's midterm elections.
Republican officials insist they share the small-government, fiscally conservative values of the grass-roots movement. In fact, Steele actually remarked earlier this week that "The Republican Party has always been a grassroots party…."
All too often, tea party leaders complain, Republicans have failed to live up to their grandiose rhetoric.
Former House majority leader Dick Armey, who now serves as chairman of FreedomWorks, an organization that has helped midwife the burgeoning tea party phenomenon, said Friday the burden is on GOP candidates to show that they are serious about reining in federal spending.
They "must come to us and show us they're worthy of our loyalty. We don't owe them," Armey said at this week's Conservative Political Action Conference.
A CNN-Opinion Research survey, based on interviews with 123 tea party activists, found that 52 percent of them described themselves as independents. But when asked whether they would be more likely to vote for a Republican or a Democrat for Congress, 87 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a Republican if no third-party candidate had won a tea party endorsement in the race.
The ongoing friction between the Republican establishment and tea party activists doesn't appear to be slowing down the movement's phenomenal growth.
Meckler tells Newsmax that Tea Party Patriots, which is just one of about a dozen major tea party organizations, now has over 1,200 chapters around the United States.
It has added 225 new chapters just since the first of January, he says.
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