Politics & Government

S.C. tea party groups seek right strategy

While thousands have gathered at tea party rallies around South Carolina over the past 12 months, organizers are finding it difficult to turn their outrage into action.

Leaders of tea party and similar groups say their members disagree on the best way to build the movement.

Some want to endorse candidates and get involved in elections.

Others worry that aligning with major party candidates will undermine their principles, based on constitutional law and limited government.

The movement sprang up in 2009 as a response to President Barack Obama and his policies. A tea party organized by Greenville Young Republicans drew about 2,000 people last February, jump-starting other S.C. groups.

Tea party leaders held their first convention in Nashville, Tenn., over the weekend, announcing the formation of a campaign fund to aid candidates in 2010.

But some in the movement, including Columbia resident Allen Olson, think the tea party should not become the Tea Party - a formal third party.

"We should be focused on local races, and we should focus on growing the movement from the bottom up, not the top down," said Olson, who helped organize a January State House rally. "Once you start mixing with the parties, it leaves it open to corruption.

"Candidates come and go. Principles don't change."

Charlie Speight has chronicled the debate on his Garnet Spy blog for months, including citing evidence he thinks proves a top state GOP consultant was aiding a client by steering tea party activists away from his client's more threatening opponents.

"A lot of them are naive to how politics work," Speight said of the tea party activists. "It's smart politics for the consultants to do that."

Speight said tea party groups should require candidates to come to them, both physically and ideologically. Picking candidates, Speight said, usually creates factions.

"It's detrimental to their ideals," he said. "The movement should stay a movement and not get too organized and certainly not endorse candidates."

But others say tea party activists and their allies have a unique chance to influence elections and must do so or risk becoming irrelevant.

Tea party groups "have to take advantage," said Charleston organizer Ron Parks, "or we'll go the way of other third-party groups. They don't get noticed."

The Charleston tea party group endorsed Republican state Sen. Larry Grooms for governor. Grooms subsequently dropped out of the GOP primary. But Parks said the Charleston group is undeterred, planning to work in county and city council races.

Parks said tea party groups must be part of the 2010 debate.

"It's not viable yet; the jury's still out," Parks said. "Once you become viable, people come to you."

The issue of Tea Party independence flared in the Upstate last week, when tea party groups bristled at a Greenville County Republican Party plan to brand GOP-tea party candidates.

The GOP and tea party groups plan to announce an agreement today to open a line of communication between Upstate tea party groups and the Greenville GOP, according to an e-mail from a tea party leader.

"We maintained that although our goals were the same, we desired to be independent from the GOP," Greenville tea party organizer Harry Kibler wrote. "Realizing our shared goals, they have decided to create a liaison that will work to reach our mutual goals by maintaining direct lines of communication."