In Iowa, Tea Party’s Influence Limited So Far

Joyce Russell will appear on the Brian Lehrer Show today at 11:06 am.

For the next 12 months, Republican presidential hopefuls will be courting the state of Iowa, where first-in-the-nation caucuses can make or break a campaign. Tea Party groups across the state are already making one thing clear: they expect to feel the love.

Small organizations can exert a lot of influence in caucuses, which are local meetings that allow for open debate amongst neighbors and communities before they cast ballots. Tea Partiers recognize this opportunity to play a larger role in selecting the eventual Republican candidate, and are taking steps to increase their visibility as potential runners visit the state. By holding weekly meetings, even during downswings in the election cycle, the past few months have seen conservative activists attract the likes of Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum to speak at events.

Iowa's Tea Party chapters still have a long road ahead of them if they wish to guide the nomination process, but they are not wasting any time in getting organized—and they haven't since November. The ink was barely dry on last year’s election ballots when Tea Partiers began looking ahead to the 2012 Republican race.

On Saturday, November 6, 2010, many Iowans were happy not to be thinking about elections—they’d just voted on Tuesday. But at the Fairgrounds’ Varied Industries Building in Des Moines, conservative activists from across the state were gathering.

Iowa activists, who call themselves the Tea Party (or 9-12, or various other names) claimed some credit for several Republican victories in the election that took place earlier that week. But the Saturday event in November was the first time ever that the groups had convened. There are as many as 70 such local organizations in all; each espouses limited government and what they call “constitutional principles” and “individual liberty.” Organizer Marcia Hora said now that Republican presidential hopefuls have begun their travels through the state, activists want those priorities addressed.

“Wherever we are, we’re going to plan on them showing up,” Hora said. “If they don’t come to us, if we don’t see them, if they stay away from us, we’re going to get that word out. Why are you avoiding us? We are ‘We the People.’”

That summit in November featured workshops on political organizing as well as pep talks from representatives of outside groups who would also like to see Iowa’s Tea Party influence heightened in the presidential race. Katrina Pierson, with the Dallas Texas Tea Party, showed a slide of potential Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee.

“Are you happy with these choices?” Pierson asked, hinting that the collective answer would be ‘No.’ “So what do you do? You pick your own.”

Pierson’s group urged the Iowa activists to get themselves organized down to the county and precinct level in order to get like-minded voters out on caucus night, which was almost 15 months away at the time she spoke. That will be a big leap for Jenn Jones of Anamosa, who’s never even been to a caucus.

“This will be the first time and I’m looking forward to it,” Jones said. “There are a lot of things that have led us to get more involved. Our borders, the deficit, jobs.”

To amplify their input on such concerns, the speakers urged Iowa Tea Partiers to coalesce behind one candidate in the race for the Republican nomination. Greg Cummings, of the Southern Iowa Tea Party, liked that idea, but wasn’t sure they have enough of a network to make that happen.

“That’s the home run question,” he said. “There’s 32 groups represented here today that are from all over Iowa. That’s a start.”

But only a start, says Republican state central committeeman Drew Ivers. Ivers heads a conservative group in Iowa called Campaign for Liberty, which he says shares the values of Tea Partiers. He also ran Ron Paul’s campaign in Iowa in 2008.

According to Ivers, the so-called “liberty-minded groups” will gravitate toward a number of presidential hopefuls. “They could possibly find within the state of Iowa two or three candidates that different groups could support,” he said. But uniting behind one? “It may not happen. I mean, they do not have an official organization. They’re not monolithic at all and that’s by design. And that’s good. I’m not criticizing that at all.”

At the Des Moines fairgrounds last November, organizer Marcia Hora agreed that uniting Tea Party groups and their kin for the caucuses will be an uphill battle. “Even having an event like this today,” she said, “it’s hard to say who all is out there.”

Skeptics agree, adding that Tea Partiers in 2010 did not score a major victory in a high profile race in Iowa, unlike their counterparts in other states. They say that leaves the Iowa Tea Party largely unproven going in to 2012.

On the other hand, they've got a whole year to prepare.