Jason Meade of New Franklin, Ohio, is among hundreds of political hopefuls looking to ride the "tea party" wave to Washington this year. Like most, he's finding it a tough go.
Mr. Meade is running in the Republican primary in Ohio's 13th Congressional District against five candidates while juggling a 50-hour workweek at a plastics plant. His headquarters "is in the second-floor living room in the corner where the computer is," he says. His campaign has $3,000 to its name.
Mr. Meade's experience goes to the heart of a debate roiling the nascent movement: Should it back fervent long shots who hew to its antigovernment views, or should it rally around more traditional candidates, even if they don't perfectly reflect the movement's distaste for incumbents, taxes and spending?
The question is being asked as homegrown candidates confront brute realities of politics: reluctant donors, limited party support, inexperienced staffers and the uphill fight against incumbents
Grassroots support remains vigorous, as evidenced by the thousands of tea-party activists who gathered Saturday in Searchlight, Nev., to protest the health-care law and urge the ouster of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Yet despite thronging primary races across the U.S., true tea-party candidates have stumbled at the polls. In the March 2 Texas primary, 18 incumbent Republican House members faced multiple challengers, including a flock of tea-party faithful. The incumbents won handily, with only one garnering below 60% of the vote.
Nor has a surge in Republican candidates translated into higher contributions. On average, Republican primary challengers have raised 37% less than Democratic counterparts, Federal Election Commission records show. Republican candidates for Congress have raised $294 million through 2009, nearly $30 million less than the Democrats, even though twice as many Republicans are running.
"The problem with the tea-party movement is it has inspired too many candidates," says Patrick Hughes, a candidate with tea-party backing who was trounced by Rep. Mark Kirk in the crowded Illinois Republican Senate primary. "The movement will fail if it can't coalesce behind candidates who can win."
Organizers hope public anger over President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul will help tea-party candidates who fiercely opposed the plan. Many are now promising to help repeal the law if they win, and are using the bill to try to drum up support from donors ...
"This is great news for us," says Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The DCCC has launched a Web site to highlight divisions in the GOP primaries.
Republicans say the movement has fired up the party's base, a trend that has Democrats worried about a widening enthusiasm gap. The weekend protest in Nevada, with a crowd estimated at about 7,000, is a sign of the movement's ability to rally its troops.
Thousands more are expected at a nationwide series of rallies culminating in a tax-day protest April 15 on the National Mall in Washington.
A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed 29% of voters have a positive view of the tea-party cause. That fervor has helped draw a wave of newcomers to seek public office. There are now 617 more Republicans running in congressional primaries than ran in the last midterm election, in 2006, according to the Federal Elections Commission. That's up 134%.
The number of Democrats in primaries remains almost unchanged from 2006, when the party gained 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate.
Some pollsters see perils ahead for the Republicans if tea-party candidates forge on after the primaries to run as independents in the general election. Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who surveyed 1,500 likely voters in late February, found that 46% of independents said they'd vote for an unnamed third party that prioritized cutting spending, far more than would vote for either a Democrat or a Republican.