DES MOINES, Iowa — A fundraiser Saturday for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition featuring Utah Sen. Mike Lee is turning into a call to arms for the tea party after this week's high-profile losses in races around the country.
With other speakers, including former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the Friends of the Family banquet can help mobilize activists against mainstream Republicans and others turning on tea party conservatives.
Their job will be to counter concerns the GOP was damaged by the battle led by Lee and other tea party members of Congress over the Affordable Care Act that led to a federal government shutdown and a near-default on the nation's debts.
"You have to have a showdown," said Steve Scheffler, Iowa's GOP national committeeman and president of the influential coalition, part of a national effort to bring together tea party and evangelical Christian Republicans.
Scheffler said what's hurting the party are Republicans who refuse to fight as hard as the tea party against President Barack Obama, whose agenda makes previous Democratic administrations "look like Sunday school picnics."
Amy Kremer, a founder of the tea party movement and chairwoman of Tea Party Express, said the coalition's event at the Iowa state fairgrounds will be a "rallying point" for the tea party.
"I don't think it was planned that way," Kremer said. "But I think after all the backlash that the movement is getting from the establishment, the pushback (Lee) is getting there in (Utah), I think, yeah, it definitely will."
Losses Tuesday by tea party candidates in closely watched races, including for Virginia governor, appear to be widening the gulf in the party even with Republicans such as Mitt Romney criticizing the movement's tactics.
Romney, the party's 2012 presidential nominee, said last Sunday "the shutdown was not the right way to go" and urged the GOP to consider the electability of candidates it nominates, especially for the White House.
Even Lee recently gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, on "What's Next for Conservatives," that called for all Republicans to work together — without mentioning the tea party by name.
But at a rally in South Jordan organized to show Utah's junior senator still has strong support in Utah after the shutdown even if recent polls found otherwise, Lee promised the cheering crowd, "We will stand free."
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democratic National Committee chairwoman, told KSL-TV that Republicans are engaged in what amounts to a civil war within the party — and the tea party is winning.
"Mike Lee has been one of the generals of that civil war, but it's not boding well for his party's success in elections," she said, because voters "just want us to work together. This 'my way or the highway' politics needs to stop."
Even so, Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, declared the tea party "still very much alive and well" and warned the war isn't going to be over anytime soon.
"The nomination process through 2014 is going to be a continual battle for whether they're going to put forward on the Republican side the most extreme tea party and tea party-infused candidates," she said.
If the GOP keeps rejecting "quote-unquote establishment candidates," Democrats like Utah's Rep. Jim Matheson "will have an opportunity in the future," Wasserman Schultz said.
Matheson, Utah's only Democrat in Congress, is already being talked about as a challenger to Lee in 2016, along with several Republicans. Lee's favorability ratings were below 50 percent in both a Deseret News/KSL and a BYU poll.
Lee's "shutdown politics," Wasserman Schultz said, are "way more than even the people who supported Mike Lee initially bargained for. This is not what they thought they are signing up for when they elected these guys."
The Tea Party Express' Kremer said the tea party has more resolve than ever to take on any challengers. She said if Lee does face a Republican opponent, "there will be an uprising from the grass roots like you've never seen before."
She praised Lee and Palin, who asked to appear at the coalition fundraiser after Lee was set as the keynote speaker, as "rock stars in the movement" who will generate plenty of excitement.
Kremer, based in Atlanta, said that excitement will further ignite the tea party in what she agreed was a war with the party establishment.
"They've never helped us. We have accomplished what we've accomplished because of our hard work," Kremer said. "The tea party movement is a threat to the powerbrokers, the power structure of the Republican Party."
Mahmoud Hamad, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, said there is concern among the GOP establishment in Iowa that the tea party's "very conservative outlook has taken away from the appeal of the party."
Hamad, who taught at the University of Utah and BYU, described the relationship between Iowa's evangelical Christian and tea party Republicans as "more of a marriage of convenience" that may not last.
To remain relevant through the 2016 presidential race, the tea party must field winning candidates, he said, especially in 2014 when control of the U.S. House and Senate will be up for grabs.
"If the tea party can't prove they can win and win decisively, I think they will be in a serious defensive position, and I don't think they will be able to push forward a candidate like Ted Cruz" for president," Hamad said.
Cruz has already visited Iowa, traditionally the first state to vote in presidential races. Saturday's appearance will be Lee's first in Iowa, but Lee has said he has no aspirations to run for the White House.
Hamad said it's too soon to rule out Lee or anyone else.
"I don't know if he is going to be seen as a presidential candidate. I think the field is growing," the professor said. "There are many who want to be in the spotlight for the Republican presidential nomination."26 comments on this story
Gregg Cummings, founder of the We the People tea party in Iowa and now on the national support team for the Georgia-based Tea Party Patriots, said he hopes more elected officials follow in Lee's footsteps.
Cummings said he met Lee when both were speakers along with Palin and Cruz during a veterans march on the World War II monument in Washington, D.C., during the federal government shutdown.
"I think he's a very mild-mannered but straight shooter. He doesn't seem like he keeps anything back or tries to hide or swindle in any way," Cummings said of Lee. "The more champions like that we get, the stronger the republic will be."
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