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Tea Party 2.0: Upgraded for 2012

By Shannon Travis, CNN Political Reporter
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Fri April 27, 2012
The tea party movement is focusing its energy in 2012 on putting the Senate in Republican hands.
The tea party movement is focusing its energy in 2012 on putting the Senate in Republican hands.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Conservative activist: "[W]e moved to what I call Tea Party 2.0"
  • Many in the movement say they will focus intensely on flipping the Senate into GOP hands
  • Tea Party Express kicks off bus tour through seven states with contested Senate races
  • CNN analyst: Influence of tea party likely to be more diluted in 2012 than it was in 2010

Washington (CNN) -- While loud and raucous rallies are still a part of the tea party toolbox, the movement, which came to life over dissatisfaction with big government and anger over government bailouts and President Barack Obama's health care reform, is evolving.

"After the 2010 elections, what was interesting, we moved to what I call Tea Party 2.0," said Clyde Fabretti, a conservative activist affiliated with tea party groups in Florida such as the West Orlando Tea Party and the Central Florida Tea Party Council. "2.0 allows for ... our ability to accomplish legislative initiatives, supporting various tea party candidates that adhere to the principles and values. And we have been hugely active."

"But it isn't the kind of activity that makes the press," Fabretti continued. "I mean, when you put 5,000 people at an event, you know, everybody shows up with their cameras. You have 10 meetings with different legislators on [Capitol] Hill -- nobody knows about it."

With many activists still lukewarm to presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, many in the movement say they will focus intensely on flipping the Senate into Republican hands.

Rallying the troops is part of the movement's agenda. On Friday, the Tea Party Express kicked off its sixth national bus tour, weaving its way through Pennsylvania and Ohio then heading to Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Texas, all states with contested Senate races.

But leaders in the movement described other tactics they're using -- some long-tried, some new that are designed to train and mobilize tea party and conservative activists for political warfare.

Tea party booster Americans for Prosperity spokesman Levi Russell said his group is supplying volunteers with suitcases stuffed with cell phones to set up mini phone banks in activists' homes.

"This is a whole new thing that AFP has been putting in place and really hasn't really talked about too much," Russell said. He said the group has purchased "a few thousand" phones.

It's also arming volunteers "with tablets, like iPad-style," Russell said. "They're going door-to-door, knocking on doors. They're making phone calls," the spokesman said.

"It's not something that makes the press, it's not like a big rally event where there's a big visual. But it's just meet-ups. Sometimes its just five or six people, sometimes it's 50 people."

In other cases, activists are holding conservative book clubs and movie circles to educate those of like minds.

Florida-based Internet company Big Voices Media, for which Fabretti is a senior consultant, hopes to become a kind-of YouTube for conservatives, allowing them -- and only conservatives -- to post videos, create channels, stream programming and search for content of interest to fellow conservatives. Users can also establish their own channels.

The content is accessible online, on mobile devices and via the popular Internet streaming device Roku to create "a conservative broadcast network," Fabretti said.

Fabretti also explained how Big Voices aims to have an impact in key Senate battles.

"We enter those races by providing the tea party groups and the policy groups in those geographic areas the ability to broadcast the information that they are interested in broadcasting to the public," he said.

When pressed for metrics on how far and wide the service reaches, Fabretti said it is undergoing a change in its business plan -- from subscription-based to a free service -- and said he could not offer specifics.

Meet-ups at FreedomWorks' "boot camps" are decidedly more intense.

The Washington-based tea party support group holds training sessions across the country to train activists in modern-day outreach.

Brendan Steinhauser, the group's director of federal and state campaigns, described an upcoming "boot camp" in Washington.

"Sunday is activism training," Steinhauser said. "How to write a letter to the editor, how to go to a town hall meeting, how to call your congressman, how to organize your group, how to raise money for your group, how to get media attention, how to use Facebook and Twitter and Freedom Connector, and that sort of stuff. How to build a relationship with media. And then also how to campaign, how to get out the vote."

"So it's a pretty intense day."

Steinhauser added: "We did 105 boot camps in 2011... and those are mostly in key Senate states or key swing states. So Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, we did a lot in Indiana because of the primary and North Carolina because of the presidential election."

Rallies are still valuable for getting attention, but they also provide recruits who want to be more involved.

"Say you have 5,000 people show up [at a rally.] But you take 500 of those who actually want to do a lot more work and you train them. And then you take the 50 that are really the leaders of that group, and give them the most intense one-on-one training and mentoring," Steinhauser said. "You really can do force multiplication where, now these folks are doing a lot more -- more efficiently, more effectively on their own.

"It's like the military, sort of leadership training," Steinhauser added. "The soldier on the ground with the M-16 is superimportant and you need a lot of them and they need to be out there, well trained. But you also have sort of a separate training for leadership, for the officers."

Tea Party Patriots, the movement's largest group, has a citizen journalist program "where we're recruiting and have citizen journalists who are keeping track of what different congressmen are doing," National Coordinator Jenny Beth Martin said.

More than 100 journalists have been recruited, but, "We're working to fill it up so we've got at least one for every congressman and senator," Martin said.

Shelby Blakely, national support team journalists coordinator, explained that volunteers are asked to "report" on their assigned lawmaker in at least two articles per month, posted to the group's website.

"Just the act of knowing [lawmakers] have someone watching them changes the dynamic," Blakely said.

Will these efforts matter?

Democrats and liberal allies have long employed similar tactics in the field of campaigning: recruiting armies of volunteers to knock on doors and distribute information. Many of their supporters have prominent YouTube channels and many Democratic campaigns, including President Obama's, are seen as having vast advantages in field organizing and on social media.

As for the tea party's focus on Senate races, a spokesman for the group tasked with electing Democrats to that chamber said he welcomed the tea party's activities.

"I enthusiastically welcome their efforts," the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's Matt Canter said. "I mean, the tea party did more than anybody or any thing to prevent Republicans from taking the majority in 2010. And so far they have caused divisive primaries across the country that are hurting Republican chances in nearly a dozen states."

Canter continued: "They are having a major impact on the Republican agenda, nationally, and moving the party further and further to the far right -- and further away from the middle class that's going to decide the election. So more power to them."

CNN Senior Political Analyst Ron Brownstein said despite the efforts, the movement may come up short.

"The tea party is basically a mobilization of existing constituencies within the kind of the Republican coalition. And its impact was enormous in 2010 in part because we were dealing with a smaller electorate," Brownstein said.

"The challenge for the tea party in 2012 is a bigger electorate with more casual voters who tend to be younger and more minority -- its influence is inevitably going to be diluted from what it was in 2010."

Brownstein, editorial director of National Journal, also pointed to another challenge.

"The other problem they've got is that, in 2010, they were able to generate enormous energy in a backlash against what Obama was doing," he said. "But the kind of a solution they favored clearly doesn't have majority public support either. And their ratings have gone down."

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