By Nick Carey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In early 2009, amateur conservative Tea Party activists took to the streets to protest newly-elected U.S. President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package and health reform, a ragtag army that helped win the U.S. House for Republicans in 2010, then waged internecine war with the party establishment.
There was nothing ragtag at a Feb 27 five-year celebration at the Hyatt Capitol Hill organized by Tea Party Patriots, a national umbrella group affiliated with many others in the amorphous, politically conservative movement.
Instead of huddling in the cold outside at a rally, movement heroes including U.S. Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul from Kentucky showed up at the Hyatt in downtown Washington, the Capitol Building visible up the street. At the red, white and blue-decorated ballroom, they lauded the activists present for continuing to fight the establishment. Cruz told cheering fans the Tea Party was "the best thing to happen for decades."
Five years in, the Tea Party movement is at a crossroads. The group famous for its disdain of big government and big spending is torn between becoming more professional to increase its influence on the Republican Party and win elections or remaining a primarily local, amateur grassroots movement.
Tea Party Patriots is going professional, including launching a Super PAC called Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund that raised $6.4 million in 2013, its first year. Nearly 90,000 individuals donated to the PAC in the second half of the year.
Group co-founder Jenny Beth Martin, who wore T-shirts to rallies years ago and turned up at the Hyatt in a turquoise jacket and skirt, said the move to create a Super PAC to engage in political campaigning "reflects the interests of our grassroots members."
It allows the group to dive into elections in a way that its nonprofit organization cannot by law, endorsing some candidates and attacking others.
Operating at large scale requires a more sophisticated approach, such as largely abandoning some races to focus on others, and tailoring the Tea Party image to win converts and voters, tactical issues that the Republican party itself is struggling with.
Tea Party Patriots continues to wage war on the party's moderate "establishment". The group has, for instance, launched an online petition (www.firethespeaker.com) to remove Republican House Majority leader John Boehner, so far garnering nearly 95,000 signatures.
But as is often the case for this individualistic, often fractious movement, Tea Party Patriots has fans and detractors, with the latter arguing the group has been co-opted by Washington.
"Tea Party Patriots is no different from the Republican establishment because all they want from us is money," said Tina Dupont of the Tea Party of West Michigan, a local group with a budget so tight it appealed to members for help paying its Internet bill. "To me, Tea Party Patriots are the establishment."
Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Minnesota, said upstart movements fade away if they do not become professional. "History has shown that grassroots movements go one of two ways," said. "Either they dissipate like the short-lived Occupy movement or they end up at the Hyatt."
Tea Party Patriots is one of only two new national conservative groups to emerge out of the Tea Party movement so far in the five years since it first drew national attention. The other is Tea Party Express, founded by long-term Republican strategist Sal Russo.
Some prominent statewide activists affiliated with the Tea Party movement have also turned to fundraising to support their efforts or work for national conservative groups, opting to give up their chosen careers to pursue professional activism.
Though Tea Party Patriots started as a grassroots effort, it quickly went national with fundraising activities. Even before forming its PAC, the group was raising significant money: $20 million in 2011 alone. Co-founder Martin said Patriots and its PAC together raised about the same total last year between them.
The group sends out almost daily emails seeking small donations, using jeremiads against President Barack Obama's health reform or Republican "establishment" deals on spending to motivate donors. In the 10 days leading to the Feb 27 event in Washington, the group raised $1.2 million as part of a campaign designed to showcase the movement's muscle.
A professional fundraising infrastructure supports the effort. Dawn Wildman of the SoCal Tax Revolt Coalition Inc, a group in southern California, says Tea Party Patriots in 2010 began paying her $40,000 a year to build the group's national network of coordinators in California. She says she was fired in early 2011 for saying the group was losing its way.
"I always thought if we got so big that we got disco ball, then people should really worry," she said. Tea Party Patriots said Wildman was "instrumental" in organizing the state coordinator network and declined to comment on her departure.
As the Patriots' fundraising has increased, so has the money it spends on efforts long associated with establishment politics. The group spent more than $5.3 million of the $6.4 million the PAC raised in 2013 on consultants and mailing lists. That included nearly $650,000 for the Richard Norman Group, a conservative consultant.
Martin said the investment was necessary, because targeting smaller donors is expensive.
"Our coordinators around the country will understand soon why it was necessary to make those investments," she said.
Michael Malbin, a political scientist at the University of Albany and an expert on small donors through his research at the Campaign Finance Institute said the recruiting small donors is costly but necessary.
"They are easier to mobilize than larger donors and easier to reach now, thanks to the internet," Malbin said.
Tea Party Patriots also is focusing on how to present a more professional image. The group's national grassroots coordinator, Keli Carender, said activists who spoke at the Washington event received speech training to polish up performances.
This was a far cry from the scrappy early Tea Party rallies with hand-painted signs and an "open mike" format. Many conservative activists lament that the loudest and most extreme participants took full advantage of having the microphone, to the movement's lasting detriment.
The group's founding tenets, "free markets, limited government and deficit reduction", are undergoing an overhaul, too. After polling conducted by the group showed confusion over the Tea Party movement's goals, Patriots worked with consultants to develop a new message: "economic freedom, personal freedom and a debt-free future."
THE INSIDE-THE-BELTWAY GAME
As Tea Party Patriots focus efforts on Washington, they must balance the push for influence with the desire to retain outsider status.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean says the Tea Party Patriots' Super PAC has made it clear to Republicans "they are a presence on Capitol Hill."
One example: ahead of a Republican party retreat in January, a Tea Party Patriots phone bank made 41,046 calls from voters to 90 members of Congress on and helped head off a potential moderate shift in the Republican Party stance on immigration.
Jane Lawler-Savitske of the Northern Virginia Tea Party, who attended the event at the Hyatt, said the Tea Party Patriots cannot afford to stay outside the D.C. beltway.
"We need them to be here in Washington to take the fight to the GOP establishment," she said.
Electoral success is the next key step, and Martin said Tea Party Patriots is weighing whether to get involved in primary challenges to sitting Republicans. Senators Thad Cochran in Mississippi and Lindsey Graham in South Carolina are among potential targets.
The group's first-ever endorsement did not go well. Katrina Pierson, an activist with the Dallas Tea Party, failed to unseat Republican Congressman Pete Sessions in the March 4 Texas primary.
But the Republican establishment has noticed, said James Henson, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin.
"The Tea Party has a seat at the table in the Republican Party," he said. "And they are using the silverware."
(Editing by David Greising and Peter Henderson)