Less than two years ago, Amy Kremer and Jenny Beth Martin were 30-something suburbanites in metro Atlanta, frustrated by recession, dismayed by the election of Barack Obama and waiting for the next chapter of their lives.
Ms. Kremer, a former Delta Air Lines flight attendant, had quit her career to raise her daughter. The child had grown up and just moved out, and now Ms. Kremer was filling her time with two blogs—one on gardening, one on politics.
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Supporters at a Tea Party Express rally in Phoenix in recent days.
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Ms. Martin, a software manager by training and part-time blogger, was cleaning houses to help pay the bills after her husband's temporary-staffing business collapsed. They were in danger of losing their home.
As her family's fortunes crumbled, Congress—including Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), for whose campaign Ms. Martin had volunteered—voted for President George Bush's bill to bail out the big Wall Street banks.
Ms. Martin was enraged. "It wasn't because the government didn't bail my husband's business out," she says. "Sometimes it stinks when your business goes bad. But it's part of our system.¡¦ The government doesn't need to come in and hold a business up and keep it from failing."
In the span of a few weeks in February and March 2009, the two women met on a conference call and helped found the first major national organization in the tea-party movement. Within months, they became two of the central figures in the most dynamic force in American politics this year.
Ms. Kremer, 39, currently chairs the political action committee known as the Tea Party Express. It has raised millions of dollars for upstart candidates and engineered the campaign that threatens Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Once shy about public speaking, today she crisscrosses the country addressing thousands at a time. "Are you ready to fire Harry Reid?" Ms. Kremer bellowed to a crowd of 2,000 in Reno, Nev., this month.
Ms. Martin, 40, is national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella group claiming affiliation with nearly 3,000 local groups around the U.S. Leaving her young son and daughter at home, she is on a 30-city tour, revving up activists for the victory she is counting on next Tuesday.
Powered predominantly by middle-aged, middle-class Americans with limited political experience, the tea-party movement burst out of economic upheaval and the sense among some conservatives that the Republican Party had discarded them.
It is a braid of many strands of discontent and passion, ranging from opposition to illegal immigration and a national sales tax to support for gun rights. A vocal faction questioning Mr. Obama's legal eligibility to be president provided another source of grassroots fuel.
Today, just two years after a sweeping Democratic victory, the tea-party movement is poised to redraw the landscape again. Nurtured by online networking, it helped disparate activists across the nation link up and push aside high-profile Republican leaders in multiple states this year. Next Tuesday, the movement is expected to topple dozens of Democrats, perhaps Mr. Reid himself.
In the tea party's short life, its leaders have been tested by surprise successes and shattered alliances. They've wrestled with embarrassing revelations about some early leaders that drew charges of racism and xenophobia. Ms. Martin and Ms. Kremer, once friendly, are now embittered toward each other.
A Movement's Roots
Even while President George W. Bush was still in the White House, many conservatives were angry with him and his party over bailouts for banks and for propping up auto makers. With a Democrat headed to the White House, and talk of a vast stimulus bill in the air, fiscally conservative Republicans grew more vocal about spending.
Many conservatives felt Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign had never fully exploited the Internet to raise money and unite disparate activists. The Obama team had proven deft at harnessing technology.
The Democrats' success annoyed Michael Patrick Leahy, a Nashville technology consultant. In late November, he set up a list of 25 contacts called Top Conservatives on Twitter—"#tcot" for short. The next month, he began holding Monday night conference calls, building a network of like-minded activists.
"I found there were a lot of conservatives on Twitter, and they were lonesome and competitive," he says. "We got up to 1,500 within weeks." Among them was Eric Odom, who had compiled a large list of activists through a group working to lift the offshore-drilling ban.
In Washington Township, N.J., Stacy Mott, a stay-at-home mother with a toddler and twin babies, had grown disgusted with both parties. A final straw came when, on Dec. 16, Mr. Bush defended the bailouts, saying, "I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system."
"That really inflamed conservatives," she says. The salt in the wound: Mr. Obama's election. "My biggest concern was knowing that they were going to have control of both houses¡¦and shove as much stuff through as they could," Ms. Mott says.
Ms. Mott decided to start a blog for conservative women, Smart Girl Politics, and launched a social-networking site by the same name. That drew in Ms. Kremer and Ms. Martin from Atlanta, who still didn't know one another.
In Seattle, Keli Carender, a 20-something teacher and improv comedian, was also angry at Mr. Bush's "I've abandoned" moment. She felt Mr. Obama's stimulus would be a historic boondoggle. She tried calling the offices of her two U.S. senators, both Democrats, to complain, but says their voicemail boxes were full.
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Ms. Carender blogged, too, but decided to do more: She staged a protest. She promoted it on a local talk-radio show and emailed conservative blogger and sometime Fox news consultant Michelle Malkin, who wrote about the rally online.
By mid-winter 2009, thousands of conservatives, agitated by the bailouts and the stimulus bill then in Congress, were linking up online, mostly commiserating. Those ties, though, provided fertile ground for what became known as "the rant."
On Feb. 19, Rick Santelli, a 54-year-old CNBC commentator covering financial markets, was broadcasting live from the Chicago Board of Trade. He had doubts about the government's response to the economic meltdown. The day before, the Obama administration had unveiled a $75 billion program to help homeowners who couldn't pay their mortgages.
Critics have said the outburst must have been planned. Mr. Santelli says his monologue was spontaneous. The only "hook to the tea party" in his mind, he says, was that his youngest daughter had been studying the Boston Tea Party in school.
Ms. Martin said she and her husband realized they could no longer afford their home, and didn't try to keep it. "We decided it would be better to just start over." It was maddening, she says, to imagine the government encouraging others not to take responsibility for buying houses they couldn't afford.
Mr. Leahy of the #tcot group twittered a phone number for a conference call to discuss the rant. On Feb. 20, more than 20 activists dialed in, including Ms. Martin and Ms. Kremer from Georgia and Ms. Carender in Seattle. Critically, the call included veteran representatives from a range of sizeable causes, some with access to databases stuffed with tens of thousands of contacts.
With a clumsy motto—"Repeal the Pork or Retire"—and frantic calls, the activists threw themselves into full-time organizing. They fielded queries from dozens, then hundreds, of people, often on basic matters like obtaining march permits.
On Feb. 27, about 50 events took place across the country. Most drew scores or low hundreds of participants. Ms. Carender, at the same Seattle park where she'd held her first event, drew a bigger crowd of 300. At one point, she called the office of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and had the group yell a chorus of "Boos!" all at once into the phone.
The tea-party conference calls began looking ahead to April 15—federal tax-filing day. The group at first hoped to stage events in at least 40 cities that day. "We lost track at 830" cities and towns, Mr. Leahy said later.
The weekly conference calls grew so large, phones sometimes crashed. Organizers put up a Wikipedia-like website providing protest techniques and advice. Traffic hit 50,000 and 100,000 visitors a day, according to a volunteer tracking the activity.
The effort ran on a shoestring. There was no mechanism for taking contributions, no offices or bookkeeping system. Facebook pages became the central directory.
But while people like Ms. Kremer and Ms. Martin—who were still unpaid volunteers at that point—have become the face of the tea party, the movement's success was also being supported by wealthy interests. They included Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, groups born from a conservative think tank formed in the 1980s by members of the Koch family, who run oil-and-gas conglomerate Koch Industries Inc.
On the ground, Ms. Kremer was pushing for more leadership structure for the emerging national organization. By her account, while standing in her kitchen one day in April, her husband blurted out a suggested name: Tea Party Patriots.
'I Started This'
Media attention grew. Fox News personality Glenn Beck, less than three months into his new show on the network, began touting April 15's planned rallies. He launched his own initiative, the 9/12 Project. Ms. Malkin, the blogger, promoted the events, as did Fox's Sean Hannity. (Fox, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp.)
The publicity helped spread the word. On April 15, hundreds of thousands of people—no one can provide a specific number with certainty—gathered in city halls, at post offices, at town squares, parks, and along busy streets. They poured into Love Park in Philadelphia, and stood outside state houses from Des Moines, Iowa, to Hartford, Conn., to Lansing, Mich.
"After Bush, I thought, 'Things will get better. We'll be out of these wars,'" she says. Instead, "we were basically heading down a cliff." Few of her friends and neighbors shared the anxiety, she says.
The movement's success, in just a few weeks' time, was stunning. In a tacit acknowledgment, the White House held its own event on April 15, promoting tax cuts the administration had pushed through. Republican Party leaders praised the rallies, but privately wondered where the revolt would lead.
Meanwhile, a new initiative was brewing on the West Coast. Sal Russo, a Republican consultant who advised Ronald Reagan in the 1960s and 1970s, sensed the movement's potential after witnessing the rally in Sacramento, Calif. "There were 400 or 500 people there," he says. "We were flabbergasted."
Early on, Tea Party Express and Tea Party Patriots began taking different paths, reflecting the first serious split in the movement. Tea Party Express wanted to raise money for candidates and engineer campaigns. The Patriots wanted to remain nonpartisan and issues-based, never endorsing specific candidates.
"Our local coordinators told us they didn't want us to endorse candidates," says Ms. Martin of the Patriots group. "They were tired of people coming in and telling them what to do." Mr. Leahy, the #tcot founder, dropped out.
The emerging debate was colored by White House plans to pass health-care legislation. Many tea-party activists saw that plan as a massive, costly extension of federal power into Americans' private lives.
In June, FreedomWorks, the libertarian group, put out a "Healthcare Freedom Action Kit" including, among other things, talking points on how to "keep socialized medicine out of the budget" and a 300-word sample letter to the editor.
Around that time, as Democrats staged "town hall" meetings, an activist affiliated with Tea Party Patriots circulated a memo coaching people to disrupt the events. "Rock-the-boat," the memo said. "Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge" the representative. "The goal is to rattle him."
Tea Party Express was preparing its first bus tour, and had invited Tea Party Patriots to join. Mr. Meckler and Ms. Martin were reluctant: Their group, the Patriots, had decided not to endorse or fund specific candidates, so they worried that participating might violate their followers' wishes, and their nonpartisan tax status.
The tour ended in Washington, D.C., at a rally organized by FreedomWorks, and sponsored and publicized by several conservative organizations, including Glenn Beck's 9/12 Project. The rally attracted at least 75,000 people. Ms. Kremer came back "a changed person," she says. "I didn't need to stand in the shadows of Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler" she says. "I felt good about myself."
The movement's fame brought attention and drew unwanted messages from some members. Just before the Express tour, a prominent Florida physician and tea-party activist named David McKalip forwarded a doctored image of Mr.Obama as a tribal witch doctor with a bone through his nose to a Google listserve associated with the movement. Critics seized on the episode as evidence of racist tendencies in the tea party.
Dr. McKalip apologized publicly. (In an email to The Wall Street Journal, he said he didn't create the image and "forwarded it in the middle of the night without thinking.") But the incident became a wedge among activists. Ms. Kremer sent an email in defense of Dr. McKalip. "David, we all support you fully and are here for you," she wrote. "I can assure you of one thing and that is we will protect our own. We all have your back, my friend!"
Ms. Kremer balked. "I cried about it and prayed about it and got back on the phone and said, 'Hell no, I'm not stepping down, I started this," she later recalled saying. "I'm not a racist, and if they tear us down one by one then they'll get rid of us."
Voted Off the Board
But relations quickly deteriorated. At one meeting, Ms. Kremer indicated she had hired her own lawyers and might try to claim ownership of the group's intellectual property, according to an affidavit from Ms. Martin. A few weeks later, she was voted off the board.
Ms. Kremer immediately shifted her allegiances to Tea Party Express. One of her first moves: urging it to back a little-known Republican who had taken on—against all odds—Massachusetts Attorney Gen. Martha Coakley for the Senate seat left vacant by Edward M. Kennedy's death. His name was Scott Brown.
Mr. Brown's public vow to be the 41st vote in the U.S. Senate against Mr. Obama's proposed health-care overhaul energized tea-party support. Tea Party Express began generating money for Mr. Brown (about $350,000) and attention among activists all over the country.
"There was all of a sudden, this unbelievable flurry of Internet traffic about, 'Hey, what if we could take Kennedy's seat?'" said William Temple, a 60-year-old pastor south of Savannah, Ga., and vice president of the Golden Isles Tea Party there.
On election night, Mr. Brown defeated Ms. Coakley handily. Tea party activists had undoubtedly been a key factor in the election—the first significant victory for a movement starting to feel its power.
Correction & Amplification:
A tea party rally held in Washington D.C. on September 12, 2009 was sponsored and publicized by several conservative organizations, including the 9/12 Project founded by talk show host Glenn Beck. Its primary organizer was FreedomWorks. An earlier version of this article on the tea party movement attributed that rally only to the 9/12 Project.