DES MOINES, Iowa — Is the tea party getting its groove back? Shouts of vindication from around the country suggest the movement's leaders certainly think so.
They say the IRS acknowledgement that it had targeted their groups for extra scrutiny — a claim that tea party activists had made for years — is helping pump new energy into the coalition. And they are trying to use that development, along with the ongoing controversy over the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attacks and the Justice Department's secret seizure of journalists' phone records, to recruit new activists incensed about government overreach.
"This is the defining moment to say 'I told you so,' " said Katrina Pierson, a Dallas-based tea party leader, who traveled to Washington last week as the three political headaches for President Barack Obama unfolded.
Luke Rogonjich, a tea party leader in Phoenix, called the trio of controversies a powerful confluence that bolsters the GOP's case against big government. "Suddenly, there are a lot of things pressing on the dam," said Rogonjich.
It's unclear whether a movement made up of disparate grassroots groups with no central body can take advantage of the moment and leverage it to grow stronger after a sub-par showing in last fall's election had called into question the movement's lasting impact. Republicans and Democrats alike say the tea party runs the risk of going too far in its criticism, which could once again open the door to Democratic efforts to paint it as an extreme arm of the GOP.
"Never underestimate the tea party's ability to overplay its hand," said Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee. "Just because there is universal agreement that the IRS went too far, that should not be misread as acceptance of the tea party's ideology of anger."
At the very least, furor over the IRS in particular is giving the tea party more visibility than it has had in months, and it's providing a new rallying cry for tea party organizers starting to plot how to influence the 2014 congressional elections.
The tax-agency scandal — it has led to the acting IRS commissioner's ouster, a criminal investigation and Capitol Hill hearings — seems to validate the tea party's long-held belief among supporters that government was trampling on them specifically, a claim dismissed by ousted commissioner Steven T. Miller. He has called the targeting "a mistake and not an act of partisanship."
Nevertheless, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., elected in 2010 with tea party backing, said the IRS scandal "confirms many of the feelings that led to the tea party movement in the first place."
"What's happened here is a reminder of, this is what happens when you expand government," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "That and the disaster that is Obamacare is going to be a real catalyst in 2014 and beyond."
Tea party activists hope they also can drive support ahead of the elections by stoking widespread suspicions that the Obama administration and State Department are hiding key details about the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. The seizure of Associated Press phone records also plays into their argument that government is too intrusive.
Tea party activists have tried to take advantage of the issues that have put some of their central tenets — limited government and civil liberties — in the spotlight.
From around the country last week, they headed Washington to hold a news conference on the Capitol steps and meet with members of Congress. Those who stayed home jammed House and Senate phone lines with calls urging congressional action as the IRS saga unfolded. An email from Teaparty.org that was sent to activists proclaimed: "We've worked so hard these past few years and it's paying off! We're witnessing the unraveling of a presidency at an unprecedented rate."
Freedomworks, a national tea party group, spent the week circulating petitions for congressional hearings and encouraging leaders of local groups who believe they have been targeted by the IRS to include their story on a national database to build the case against the agency.
"Perhaps all this attention will break something loose," said Jim Chiodo, an activist from Holland, Mich.
It wasn't long ago that the tea party was the hot new political kid on the block, bursting onto the national scene during the contentious summer debate over health care in 2009. Over the next few years, the loosely affiliated conservatives and civil libertarians would leave their mark on the 2010 elections by helping Republican candidates win Senate races in Florida, Kentucky, Utah and Wisconsin and scores of House races.
Those victories resulted in House and Senate Republican caucuses getting pushed to the right in legislative battles, making life difficult for Obama and his Democrats in an era of divided government.
But the movement's success was muted in 2012 when Republicans nominated the establishment-backed Mitt Romney for president, though he did little to inspire the tea party. He lost, and so did many tea party-backed House and Senate candidates.
Now, tea party activists say they are emboldened and won't be afraid to recruit candidates to run in Republican primaries against incumbents who appear to go easy on the Obama administration, particularly in light of the IRS scandal.
"It's one of those issues we should just raise hell about," said Nashville Tea Party leader Ben Cunningham.
Some say they're now even more suspicious of government than before.
"I personally feel so vindicated," said Mark Falzon, a New Jersey tea party leader. But he added: "What's scaring me now is what's going on below the water line that we're not seeing."
Republicans say that the tea party will have an opportunity come 2014 to make its mark again, particularly with Obama not at the top of the ticket. Also, they say that with Obama's health care law going into effect and with the slew of latest controversies, they now have concrete issues to point to when arguing against government overreach.
"Suddenly, this is a very real demonstration of too much power ceded to government bureaucrats," said Matt Kibbe, president of Freedomworks. "This is no longer theoretical."
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Boston and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report. Follow Thomas Beaumont on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Tom_Beaumont