Still, tea party observers such as Foley and Skocpol say the movement may be here to stay. The tea party, says Foley, is "in the fabric of every community. You may not see it, because they're not holding signs. But they're there."
And, she adds, "They're in it for the long haul."
To better grasp the evolution of the movement, simply follow the journeys of its people.
In March 2010, Hildy Angius, a retired public relations specialist, drove from her condo in Bullhead City, Ariz., to the huge tea party rally in Searchlight, Nev. — what some called the Woodstock of conservatism. Then, she was president of her local Republican women's club. Now, she serves as vice chair of the Mohave County Republican Party and is running for county supervisor.
"I think we realized that just getting together ... and yelling and screaming wasn't going to do anything," says the 52-year-old Angius. "The best thing is to get involved at the local level in the party. Move the local party to the right ... and then the local party will move the state and then the state moves the national.
"The tea party was an idea that people like me, who came from nowhere, could get involved ... and you can really make a difference."
In San Antonio, 60-year-old Bruce Baillio now feels the same.
After the Tax Day rally of 2009, he went home, set his tea party flag aside and went on with life, keeping up with politics but not getting involved. Then he read about a Houston tea party group's call for poll watchers to prevent what they considered possible election fraud. He was trained as an election judge and, urged on by a fellow church member who now serves as head of the San Antonio Tea Party, began attending his neighborhood tea party meetings. Soon enough, he was leading the group.
Today, he and other tea party members have the clout to meet privately with elected officials and press them to hold the line on city projects, including a proposal to spend millions to build new housing in the downtown core.
"We are showing up at city council meetings on a regular basis, showing up at county commission meetings on a regular basis. We have organized neighborhood groups to attend town hall meetings," says San Antonio Tea Party president George Rodriguez. "It is at those meetings that we bring up the issues of: How are you using our money?"
Political candidates are also coming to them, seeking votes and volunteers.
That Tuesday night in San Antonio, three candidates showed up to court Baillio's members, including Matt Beebe, a conservative newcomer taking on the speaker of the Texas House in the state's May 29 primary. Beebe credited tea party groups like Baillio's for paving the way for more conservative candidates to seek office.
"The tea party ... has provided a backdrop where the opportunity to beat an entrenched incumbent exists," he says. "They're putting their money where their mouth is. They're putting their time and effort where their mouth is, and so I feel like they are absolutely significant."
This, Baillio says, is "the new normal" — his group of citizen activists who may not dress up in revolutionary garb, make signs and converge on large rallies, but instead work behind the scenes to influence their democracy in myriad ways.
"We have definitely changed the dialogue. People now have to consider the tea party," he says. "Are we a paper tiger? I think that's our biggest fear. And the answer to that question is in our own hands. We get to decide. It's about who else can we educate. Who else can we wake up?"
Pauline Arrillaga, a Phoenix-based national writer for The Associated Press, can be reached at features(at)ap.org.
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