Staying grassroots is key to Tea Party success

The Tea Party is unlikely to organize itself around a central leader or platform, even as it gains momentum following a series of electoral upsets in the Republican senate primaries

The Tea Party is unlikely to organize itself around a central leader or platform, even as it gains momentum following a series of electoral upsets in the Republican senate primaries.

Party organizers seem to understand the Tea Party has more influence as a grassroots, social media-driven movement than as a third party. That was underscored when one group, called Tea Party Nation, had to cancel a convention it had planned in Las Vegas due to lack of support. Many Tea Party organizers felt the group didn't align with the grassroots nature of the movement.

Christina Botteri, a founding member of the National Tea Party, tells PRWeek the Tea Party founders understand the importance of its decentralized structure.

“The fact is not lost on us that our friends on the progressive left would very quickly try to seek that hierarchy [if we instituted one] so they could lop it off. We knew if we did this it would really drive them nuts,” says Botteri, a former PR director who sometimes serves as media spokesperson for the Tea Party. “It was also intellectually consistent to have the movement be decentralized. We have no interest in third party politics.”

Jake Ward, VP of the David All Group, says the success of the Tea Party is due in part because it has rallied around a strong anti-government, anti-establishment sentiment rather than specific individuals or policies. “The Tea Party is more powerful as a movement without a single entity as its leader,” he says. “Leaders are open to attacks—a single point of leadership becomes a single point of derision.”

RNC chairman Michael Steele at a Tea Party event in Florida September 20

He says that the Democrats need to take that anti-establishment sentiment more seriously, while Republicans need to do a better job of communicating with Tea Party supporters, many of whom are disgruntled Republicans. He says social media should help lead that strategy, given that's how tea party supporters communicate amongst themselves. “Mainstream conservatives need to come up with a plan to incorporate the Tea Party—people who are just really unhappy with everything—and pull them into the fold,” says Ward.

Doug Heye, communications director for the Republican National Committee, said the Republican Party is actively “listening and talking” to Tea Party supporters. As part of the GOP's “Fire [Democratic House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi” cross-country bus tour, RNC chairman Michael Steele has been attending Tea Party events and rallies, including one in the Tampa area on Monday, September 20.

“One of the things that makes the Tea Party such a strong force is that it is truly a grassroots organization. You can't pick up the phone and call the Sarasota party, for example,” says Heye.  “We need to go to where they are, and start a positive dialogue.”

Hari Sevugan, national press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, told PRWeek that the Tea Party ultimately helps provide a “clearer choice” for voters.  The DNC has also positioned itself as a “grassroots party,” with a new slogan (“Change That Matters”) and website, complete with a new logo and enhanced social media tools.

“The new look and feel of the party is about who we are—a grassroots party, and we want that reflected in everything we do,” says Sevugan. “We also wanted to improve the utility of the site so there's more ways to engage folks in online communities and also allow those folks to engage their neighbors and family, like through voter registration tools with built-in widgets that they can put on their own sites.”

The new branding elements were the result of a “collaborative effort,” says Sevugan, but he declined to reveal specifics.

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