WASHINGTON — GOP to tea party: Welcome to OUR party.
Not so long ago, the Republican Party and its conservative base weren't sure what to make of – or how to treat – the emerging rabble-rousing ranks of the latest political phenomenon.
Everyone from House Speaker John Boehner to the decades-old Conservative Political Action Conference is embracing, if not celebrating, the libertarian-leaning activists who upended the Republican establishment and helped the GOP post huge congressional gains last fall.
"I'm a big believer in the tea party," Boehner said. His comment came just days before tea party-backed House Republicans caused headaches for the speaker on Capitol Hill by dealing him a string of unexpected legislative defeats and forcing his lieutenants to propose deeper budget cuts.
The tea party also is figuring prominently this week at the annual three-day gathering in Washington that for 38 years has attracted thousands of conservatives and a crop of GOP presidential hopefuls trying to win them over.
Tea party darling Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, scored the opening speaking slot, and several other favorites – including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul – held court, too. Panels were dedicated to issues dear to the tea party – like one on cutting spending – and featured nationally recognized tea party leaders, such as Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Express. The audience included many people wearing tea party buttons and shirts.
"These are our new allies," said David Keene, the outgoing chairman of conference sponsor American Conservative Union. "The story of the last two years has been the story of an awakening – a political and ideological awakening – of the American people. A lot of these folks who pooh-poohed this awakening lost their jobs in November."
Elected Republican leaders and GOP rank and file have danced around the tea party for nearly two years, unsure how to handle the fledgling political group that rose up in opposition to President Barack Obama's policies on spending, health care and the growth of government.
Then, the tea party proved its might in November by helping elect dozens of Republicans, giving the GOP little choice but to try to bring the new blood into its old fold.
Yet, tea party leaders insist the movement remains independent.
"We're not an arm of the Republican Party," Kremer said. "In fact, there are a lot of Republicans that don't like us. Our objective is to send conservatives to Washington – not Republicans."
In that way and others, the anti-establishment tea party has been – and continues to be – both blessing and curse for Republicans.
It provided the GOP – leaderless and in the midst of an identity crisis – with a much-needed boost of enthusiasm in 2010, and it helped the party win the House majority. But it also probably cost Republicans control of the Senate after swinging behind far-right GOP nominees in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware, states Democrats ended up winning.
Looking to 2012, tea party groups also have signaled they'll try to knock off Republican Senate incumbents in at least three states. While Utah is a reliably conservative state, Indiana and Maine could give Democrats an opening for victory if GOP incumbents fall in primaries to tea party-embracing candidates.
"The tea party has had enormous influence," Paul, who beat a party-chosen candidate in last year's primary, told conservatives. But, he added, the tea party shouldn't yield, saying: "Don't let up. It's not enough to have Republicans in charge. We are not inherently exceptional as Republicans."
Playing to the coalition's independent streak, he asked: "Are we going to let Washington co-opt the tea party?" "No!" the crowd shouted – even as the GOP was busy co-opting the tea party.
Pillars of the Republican establishment have taken note of the coalition's power.
"The energy and drive of the tea party movement has brought needed recalibration to our party and our cause," former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told conservatives. And Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a conservative who has been targeted by tea party backers for defeat next year and is scrambling to save his job, said earlier this week: "The tea party movement is having an imprint on America that is very good."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell's speech to conservatives was notable because it didn't single out the tea party but spoke to conservatives as a whole.
"We'll have some disagreements along the way. That's inevitable," said McConnell, R-Ky., whose preferred Senate candidate lost to Paul. "But one thing that unites all of us is the belief that the goals of the movement are greater than the goals of any individual member of it and that if we stick together and unite around common goals, grounded in shared principles, we will continue to change the conversation in Washington for the better."
Still, not everyone is warmly embracing the movement.
Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar told tea party groups threatening to try to boot him from office next year to "get real."
Beyond Congress, the tea party is all but certain to be active in the presidential race. Less clear is how and, perhaps more importantly, to what end.
Its enthusiasm – and its legions of foot soldiers – will be critical as Republicans try to accomplish the difficult task of beating an incumbent president who is personally popular.
But which Republican will tea party backers rally behind?
Tea party heroine Sarah Palin may not run. Neither may favorites Bachmann and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.
Their backers could very well wreak havoc on the wide open GOP field, splitting their support among several candidates. With so many unknowns, all would-be nominees are making careful pitches to court tea party activists – or at least not alienate them. Still, doing so carries a risk: the eventual Republican nominee could be pushed far to the right.
And that could play into Obama's hands by turning off independent voters who will be critical to the GOP's chances of winning the White House – just as the president is making a serious play for their support by seemingly shifting his policies to the center.
EDITOR'S NOTE – Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.