Protests and rallies weren't enough for tea party activist Tim Kraulidis.
That's why he got himself elected during the February primary as a precinct committeeman in the Chicago suburb of Plainfield, a grass-roots post that gives him a say in Republican Party politics.
"People are frustrated, they're looking for a way to do something other than hold a sign. It's good to let everybody know you're mad, but what are you going to do with that?" said Kraulidis, state coordinator for the Illinois Tax Day Tea Party, a collection of tea parties in Chicago's southern suburbs.
Some Illinois tea party activists -- who believe the GOP has strayed from its conservative roots of fiscal restraint -- are evolving from sideline protesters to political insiders who are running for office or working for candidates who support their call for small government and a conservative agenda.
Illinois reflects one facet of the fractious movement. In other states, tea party groups are renouncing affiliations with any major party. And many activists aren't sure what they should do as the 2010 midterm election -- the first concrete test of the party's impact -- approaches.
Republican leaders in Illinois acknowledge they somehow must embrace this possibly influential group, which has become even more energized since the passage of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
"We need to re-establish our credentials with them, no doubt," said Illinois Republican Party chairman Pat Brady.
Any potential source of new voters or volunteers could be especially important in a Democrat-controlled state like Illinois, where Republicans hold no elected statewide offices. Tea partiers tend to be mostly Republicans, disaffected former Democrats and Libertarians, all of whom the Illinois GOP needs on its side to win in November.
Tea party membership in Illinois isn't easy to quantify because the groups mainly count the e-mail contacts they use to share information. For example, tea parties in the Chicago suburbs of Palatine and Schaumburg have about 5,000 contacts each, said Denise Cattoni, state coordinator for the Illinois Tea Party, an umbrella group of about 50 groups from around the state.
Even so, many wonder how much success tea parties will have in Illinois because of the state's history of electing moderate Republicans, when it's not electing Democrats. Tea party favorites in Republican primaries for Illinois governor and the U.S. Senate didn't make it through to the fall ballot.
Tea party activists, however, believe they can help bring the GOP "back around to a more conservative situation," said Springfield Tea Party coordinator Sandy Dragoo.
There's even a Web site to help would-be politicians get started. It's called the Conservative Committeeman Project.
Ralph Sprovier, a regional coordinator for the Illinois Tea Party, said the group's expectations for government are modest: "Defend us, don't spend more than we have, get the budget balanced and listen to what we say."
The tea parties are mad about ballooning federal deficits and what they see as an expansion of government through economic stimulus packages, bank bailouts and the health care overhaul.
Republicans such as Mark Kirk, the GOP nominee running for Obama's former Senate seat, are a frequent target. The conservatives see Kirk as too liberal and can't forgive him for his vote in favor of "cap and trade" legislation to limit pollution.
Brady, the state GOP chairman, says he understands the tea party anger at incumbents of both parties and wants to reach out to tea party leaders.
GOP candidates, Brady said, also need to convince tea party supporters of their commitment to being fiscal conservatives. But the party must find a way to satisfy the tea party voters without going too far or risk of alienating moderates.
Air Force reserve pilot Adam Kinzinger, the Republican running to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, is among those tea partiers are supporting.
Kinzinger, 32, a former McLean County board member who has been endorsed by the National Republican Congressional Committee, is counting on tea party supporters to go door-to-door and to use their e-mail contact lists to get out the vote for him.
But Democrats say they're not worried
"The voters in the 11th District are not easily influenced by the rhetoric of fringe organizations like the tea party," said Travis Worl, Halvorson's campaign manager, in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, one of the state's leading Democrats, said Illinois doesn't have enough pockets of hardline conservatives for the tea party to have widespread success like it might in other states.
"I'm not at the level of any great fear at this moment," he said.
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