With the Tea Party hoping to put its mark on the 2010 midterm elections, the national movement is thriving — without a central leader. A group of Tea Partiers in Lynchburg, Va., discuss what propelled them into activism — and, in some cases, placed them at odds with the Republican Party.
Who Is Stirred By The Tea Party?
In the spring, The New York Times and CBS News conducted a poll and determined that 18 percent of Americans claim some sort of kin to the Tea Party.
A far smaller group call themselves activists or financial contributors. Of course, those numbers are likely larger now, as the Tea Party claims success in influencing primary elections.
In Lynchburg — the home of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and a town that sometimes identifies itself as "the gold buckle of the Bible Belt" — NPR met with some local Tea Party leaders, although they all firmly insist that the Tea Party has no real leaders.
Folks like Darriel and Shelby Burnett, of Danville, Va., explained why they felt inspired to get involved.
"I was unaware of what was going on around me until I retired," says Shelby Burnett, who formerly worked at a financial company. "And we started watching Fox News, and getting more informed on what was going on in our nation."
"We were asleep," Shelby says — but now a sleeping giant has been awakened. The big wake-up call for the Burnetts was the economy. Like Shelby, Darriel is retired from his job; he worked at Goodyear.
"If you look at the entire country, money has got to be the big question," he says. "My wife and I took a hit on our retirement. We lost approximately 12 years' worth of savings in about four months."
Echoing The Nation's Beginnings
These Virginia Tea Partiers also give credit to the country's founders for their own personal political awakening.
"Think about the men that lived here," says Mark Lloyd, a sales representative for media companies. "Patrick Henry is buried about 30 miles from here. I mean, you got Thomas Jefferson ... You've got the Founding Fathers here. And I think what you see happening is, there's a reawakening of that spirit in America."
Ideas of freedom and liberty, Lloyd says, are "hardwired" into America's character. And they've become more important as large crises have hit the country, he says.
"Now, unfortunately, it has taken the financial disaster, along with some other disasters, to wake us up," he says. "But I think we're there."
Kurt Feigel, a website designer who has his own Tea Party blog, Virginia's Fifth District Watchdog, says that for him, the larger issue is government spending, debt and deficits.
"I remember back ... when the national debt — not the deficit, but the debt — hit a trillion dollars," he says. "And I tried to do the math, and I was not able to figure out how in the world our country could ever pay back a trillion dollars in debt. And now we're up over 13 [trillion]."
Feigel takes debt personally. He lived in California when the economy crashed, and he had to walk away from his mortgage. He ran up tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt, and moved his family to Virginia to save money and pay the debts.
"When you have debt, you cannot continue to live like that. You will eventually be bankrupt, or have to file for bankruptcy, or have somebody come and either throw you in jail for fraud or take everything you've bought with that debt," he says.
"And that's what I see when I look at America and where we've gone," Feigel says. "That's what I think a lot of us in the Tea Party are here for… [what] maybe a lot of people can't articulate is, 'I don't know why exactly I'm here — but I know something is not right, and I want to change that.' "
The Search For Tea Party Candidates
We asked our very small sample of the Tea Party movement if they see a way to vote based on their concerns — if they see candidates they can support. This group definitely won't vote for Democrats, but they don't seem to like Republicans much better.
"I wasn't particularly enamored with the Republicans or the Democrats at the time, simply because to me, it just seemed like a big group going in the same direction," says Wayne McDaniel, who works for a used-car company.
These Virginians made an effort to work with local Republicans — and found themselves up against what they called "the kingdom" or the "inner circle." It's an argument that is not yet over.
"We're getting in on their machinery, we're scratching around in their sandbox, and they don't like it," Darriel Burnett says. "But we are people — and if they had been doing their job, nobody would have to call them to task. But they haven't been doing their job, so here we are."
This group is looking past the Republican Party — they want candidates who could carry their ideas, even more than they want winning candidates who might help Republicans control the Congress.
"There's a time when we should worry about control, and there's a time where we should worry about doing what's right," Feigel says.
"And I don't know where the line is, but I know that when the choice is a liberal Republican or a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican versus a liberal Democrat, I'll take the conservative Republican any day, [even] if that means losing. Because if we win a race, if we were in Delaware and we win a race with a liberal, what have we won?"
Looking At Issues, Not Leaders
The activists we spoke to are very proud of the fact that there are no leaders in the Tea Party — no politicians whom they have to grit their teeth and support. They like the idea of big ideas, a longer view. Although they are clearly socially conservative, for now they're even prepared to set those issues aside.
"Well — we're not a party. There's no specific Tea Party candidate," says Christina Stringfield, a freshman at Central Virginia Community College.
"The Tea Party is focused on getting back the constitutional limited government, and that is our focus," she says.
"Later in the future, if that comes into play and we feel like that's important, then we'll bring that issue in, and that'll become more of a focus," she says. "Right now, it's ... we've got to get back to basics. I personally don't agree with abortion — but this Tea Party's focus is constitutionally limited government, not social issues."