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Can the Tea Party repeat its 2010 gain as Democrats prepare for a comeback?

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February 24, 2012 by Jack Suntrup

WASHINGTON COUNTY – With help from local and national Tea Party groups, Republicans made historic gains from the county level to the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2010 election. But, as the 2012 election draws near, the question is whether or not the Tea Party can duplicate the successes it had two years ago.

“I’ve seen articles saying the Tea Party is fizzling out,” said Jeff Oland, Chairman of the Washington County Tea Party. “It may be that it’s fizzling out, that the numbers at a Tea Party meeting are reducing, but that’s because many of these people are involved in other groups … What they’ve done is they zeroed in on specific local challenges.”

A main part of the Tea Party’s strategy is to consolidate the resources of other groups around the area. Some, Oland said, branched out from the Tea Party. Other groups, like Northwest Arkansas Citizens For a Better Government (NWACFBG), popped up without Tea Party affiliation. The NWACFBG organized in response to Fayetteville’s Streamside Ordinance and

has focused on other issues like the U.N.’s Agenda 21.

“We do share some common interests,” NWAFBG chairwoman Debbie Beckerdite said. “We believe in smaller government, don’t like taxation. We realize you have to have it, but we want the lowest possible tax.”

While she doubts “we’ll make something totally formal,” organizing like-minded conservative groups without forming one central group is what Beckerdite has tried to do.

“We’re always in touch with one another for different events,” she said. “We’re trying to do more of that.”

It’s the independent, cell-operation of focusing on different issues that makes conservative ideology stronger, Oland said.

“If you specialize, you get better at something,” he said. “That’s what’s happening.” While Oland believes there are many Tea Partiers who have set their sights on specific challenges, another issue will be energizing people he calls “armchair patriots” this election. “[They’re] someone who watches the news and complains,” he said.

“It could be somebody who attends a Tea Party meeting. They faithfully attend every meeting but they do nothing but at- tend the meeting. What good does that do our country?”

For Tea Party members, energizing “armchair patriots” and spreading their message through civic groups and churches are a big focus. And as they continue spreading their message, it’s the politicians that are taking notes, particularly Republicans in the May primaries. State representative for Spring- dale, Jon Woods, welcomes possible sup- port as he faces off with Bill Pritchard in the Republican primary.

“They’re a very vocal group and they have a certain message and reputation for being extremely conservative,” said Woods, who will debate Pritchard at the March 12 Tea Party meeting. “Liberals do not like it. But I think most people hold what the candidate says libel for their own words.”

Tea Party support in what Woods views as a conservative district is important. In the 2010 midterms, Republicans — with the help from the vocal Tea Partiers –swept all seven of the Arkansas State Senate’s con- tested seats. Democrats also lost 11 State House seats to Republicans during that sea change year. In 2012, however, Tea Party members on the local level are now serving as a litmus test for right-leaning candidates.

“Usually, what a Tea Party endorsement does is show you that Candidate A is more conservative than Candidate B,” Woods said.

While the Tea Party may not attract general election voters in a more liberal district, Tea Party support will not be a negative in Woods’ race, he said.

“With this race, things are so conservative, things are so dominantly Republican, that in this race it would not hurt,” Woods said. “Maybe in a more liberal district it could be used against you by your opponent, but you really can’t control who endorses you.”

Endorsing is one thing. Money is quite another. While its still early in the election cycle, Oland said the Tea Party will try to steer clear of fundraising for individuals. He did not, however, dismiss the possibility of endorsements.

“We may [endorse a candidate],” Oland said. “It depends. I’m kind of looking at it as weighing each situation … and if it seems important enough, significant enough, that we actually endorse them, then we will.”

“We’re just a movement and it’s basically about trying to keep an eye on things,” he said.

Broader constituencies will also play a big part in the 2012 election, thanks to the impact of a nearly 30 percent population growth in Washington County since 2000. The resulting gains mean greater representation in Little Rock.

Noting UA’s growth over the decade, Oland said, “Washington County houses the University of Arkansas, the biggest think tank in Arkansas. All the intellectuals that have an idea on how to ‘save the planet,’ ‘save the community’ are here and have their roots here,” he said. “I believe our challenge is bigger than anywhere else in Arkansas and if we’re able to make a change here it’s going to be significant,” Oland said.

In contrast with any intricate GOP plans, Oland said his votes would go to those who represent what he believes, regardless of party.

“It’s not just Republican and Democrat,” Oland said. “If they disappoint us, they disappoint us. It’s about limited government. If you have a Democrat step up and believes in this country and wants limited government, wants to be fiscally conservative, I’ll vote for that guy because he believes in what I believe.”

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