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Tea Party: Grass roots or head in the clouds?

Thanks to the Tea Party, the Arkansas Congress is Republican for the first time in 138 years. They have attacked not only Barack Obama but the Republican Party itself. But will the Tea Party really stop at nothing?

The excitement is palpable at the afternoon live talk show at KARN News Radio in Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas. Republican member of the State Senate Alan Clark has made a discovery: Leading officials of the Arkansas government approved a significant raise in their own salaries. Supposedly, the raise is almost five times higher than the two percent increase in salaries implemented for public officials by the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Everyone in the studio today is up in arms. Clark and everyone at KARN agrees: The Democratic-led government of Arkansas is responsible for the situation. After all, those in the studio are all members of the local Tea Party.

Tea Party confidence

David Crow, one of the co-founders of the Arkansas Tea Party, is also taking part in the discussion this afternoon. He is proud of his fellow activists: Their actions have now made even the government in Washington prick up its ears.

"One of the things that we've attempted to do is to grow membership and teach people how government should work and be fiscally responsible from a Conservative standpoint," he tells DW. " We believe that we need to work from the ground up. If you can change it locally in the city, you can affect county government. If you can affect county government, you can affect state government. And likewise then you can have an influence on Washington D.C."

It comes as quite a surprise to see that seemingly not much has remained in the way of political heritage from Bill Clinton, the state's long-term governor and president. Apart from the "Bill and Hilary Clinton Airport" and the "Clinton Presidential Center," that is.

Street sign in Little Rock, Arkansas

What will the future hold for the Tea Party?

Battling Obama and Obamacare

President Barack Obama is the Tea Party's favorite target. The party's supporters are against bank bailouts, against environmental regulations, against gay marriage and against abortion. Most of all, they adamantly oppose high taxes and are generally against any government regulations from far-away Washington. But, according to the Tea Party activists, the pinnacle of state interference with individual freedoms is Obama's health care reform, which has made health insurance mandatory for all Americans.

Tim Jacob tells DW that for the Tea Party, health insurance is "not an issue like Syria where very few Arkansans and Americans really know what's going on there. But we know when we're losing our doctor, how that hurts us as a family," he says.

A grass roots movement with radical tendencies

Door to door visits, telephone calls, emails and Facebook campaigns are a perfect example of how the Tea Party organizes its political work. The party sees itself as a grass roots movement and has local groups in more than half of the districts of Arkansas. It is estimated that around 200,000 people see themselves as supporters in the large but sparsely populated state, which has just under 3 million inhabitants and is part of the conservative Bible Belt.

In Washington, the Tea Party has around 70 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. During the budget crisis last September, the party showed that it was capable of steering the Republican Party and paralyzing the entire country for weeks.

But Tim Jacob and many like-minded Tea Party members have completely deferred responsibility for the crisis and see President Obama's stubbornness as the cause for the shutdown.

Individual freedoms the top priority

"I think the Tea Party reflects the values of the citizens of Arkansas," says Jacob. "They don't want a redistribution of wealth, they don't want government coming in and saying what you can own, and what you have to do, and what doctor you have to see."

Bob Porto (Photo: DW / G. Schließ)

Bob Porto is skeptical of any government regulations Washington passes

Bob Porto thinks that politicians should do their job and then go back to simply being members of the community. He once owned a successful construction company that built houses in Arkansas. And then the banking and financial crisis brought an abrupt end to his business. Porto was left feeling betrayed by the government, the parties and the banks and went in search of new allies, which he found in a newly forming movement.

"During the movement, it was just a handful of people. And it just started growing," Porto comments on the humble beginnings of the Tea Party in 2009. "And we used social media, found common values with people who were frustrated. We spoke the first time at the State Capitol building here in Little Rock," he says of the first rally. "There were over 3,000 people that showed up. We had signs, 'This is our government,' 'Leave us alone,'" he adds.

Porto doesn't exclude the Republicans from the criticism he expresses. He sees both US parties as just as bad as each other, and as being dependent on powerful lobbyists.

Rigorous action

And the activists hardly hold back when they disapprove of representatives or senators. One such example was when they took Mitch McConnell from Kentucky to task at the end of last year, a politician who was just praised by Barack Obama in his State of the Union address on Wednesday (29.01.2014). They accused the Republican minority leader in the Senate of betrayal in the fight against Obamacare, because he voted for the health care reforms. McConnell had publically complained about the rabid methods of the Tea Party, which didn't shy away from attacking his private life and his family late last year.

Bob Porto defends the party's behavior. "The Tea Party may be a threat to a politician if they don't line up with its values. But I would say that that's not a bad thing," he says. After all, political representatives have to be continuously reminded that they were elected in order to serve the American people, Porto explains. "Their obligation is to follow the will of the people - not their will."

Invasion

The Republican Party establishment is already poised for resistance to the Tea Party, which is going from strength to strength and is gnawing at Republican foundations. John Snow, who was US secretary of the treasury under George W. Bush, tells DW the party is ready to fight.

"The answer is to defeat them. The business community in the United States right now is making a concerted effort to see that those initiatives to defeat good, solid, middle-of-the road Republicans don't succeed. And I think the mainstream people will prevail here. And increasingly, the Tea Party will be isolated," he says.

Tea Party activists protest on Capitol Hill (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

The Tea Party could cause problems for the Republican Party at the 2014 mid-term elections

Snow's Republican colleague from Arkansas, Member of the State Senate Alan Clark, disagrees. "I have a great relationship with the Tea Party. I was a county chairman with the Republican Party, I worked very closely with the Tea Party in my county. And we agree on most everything."

Of course he knows that the Tea Party and the Republican Party could cannibalize each other at the upcoming mid-term elections in November 2014, which would give the Democrats the last laugh.

But the Arkansas Tea Party is confident and isn't losing sleep over such tactical concerns. Bob Porto and his Tea Party colleagues plan to get their candidates into power on a national level. "Arkansas will most likely send all national representatives that are Republicans to D.C. for the first time ever. And we're poised to take the executive office, which is the governor, and we'll control the House [of Representatives] and the Senate," he explains.

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