CONCORD, N.H. – It was all here Friday at the state capitol building: The signs denouncing government taxes and spending, the men in tri-corner hats, the Gadsen flags and the appeals to the Constitution, just as they have been the past two years at Tax Day rallies around the country.
But unlike two years ago, when the Tea Party was born, the state legislature here is now controlled not by Democrats but by Republicans. And they have veto-proof majorities in both chambers, swept into power last fall. The GOP-controlled House earlier this month passed a budget that would close a shortfall of more than $700 million without raising taxes, and the plan is now before the Senate.
In many ways this is cause for celebration for conservatives. But as a presidential election cycle ramps up, some conservative activists here in the state whose motto is “Live Free or Die” said that electoral success has made it harder to keep their nascent movement as energized as it was before.
“We’ve come a long way, baby! But now is not the time to take our foot off the gas pedal,” said Kevin Smith, a former state representative, in remarks to a crowd of about 300 people.
In an interview afterward, Smith, who is now the executive director of Cornerstone Action, a family values group based in Manchester, said that “there is some dissipation” of the energy that animated conservatives last year.
“We’re not fighting against as much as the last two years,” he told The Huffington Post. “Is it going to be a lasting movement? That’s what remains to be seen.”
Joyce Spatz, a 62-year-old IT analyst attending the rally, expressed concern that there are not enough Tea Party types getting politically involved. "There is a segment of the population that has been silent for too long," she said. "It's not about taxes. It's about being mismanaged."
Too many people, Spatz said, are "not educated about the issues." "I think it's changing, but not fast enough."
Questions about whether the Tea Party will ultimately be a mood or a movement are in the minds of some Republican politicians as well. Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana, said he has met Tea Party activists at every stop along the way of his three-week-old campaign for president through New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.
“I’m an organization guy, and I’d say its strength is that it’s not a party, and its added strength is that it’s more than just a passing mood. These are people that plan to get involved,” he said.
But Roemer told HuffPost that longevity and durability are the real test for the Tea Party, and that it could “go either way” for the movement.
“Politics is rough, and it’s persistent. It never goes away,” Roemer said. “And we’ll see how the Tea Partiers handle that -- that it’s not just one vote; it’s the next vote that counts. We’ll see. They’ll either grow, or dissipate. They won’t stay the same.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, another potential 2012 candidate, warned conservatives against disengaging.
“The lie that we’ve been telling ourselves for far too long in America is that if we just do our jobs, provide for our family, drop our kids off at school, and do what we have to do in our personal life, then America will continue to be free and safe and prosperous. And that, ladies and gentleman, is a lie,” Santorum said.
“The hard part is to maintain freedom over the course and corrosion of time. No civilization has been able to do that. It takes a reawakening. It takes a Tea Party.”
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, one of the top-tier 2012 presidential hopefuls, said he did not see any signs of lost momentum among the conservative grassroots.
“I don’t see it being diminished as I travel around the country. It seems as strong as it was and in many ways growing,” Pawlenty told HuffPost.
“The fuel of grassroots politics is passion and energy and the Tea Party brings that to the table, big time. So we need it and we want to applaud their work and encourage their activities,” he said.
Pawlenty has been one of the loudest and most visible Republican critics of the new GOP majority in the House of Representatives over the past week, denouncing the budget deal reached last Friday by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and passed on Thursday.
Democrats have been eager to turn Tea Party ire against the Republicans now in charge of one half of Congress, and Pawlenty’s rhetoric -- while helping his own prospects with the grassroots -- could enhance that dynamic.
But Andrew Hemingway, the chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire, said that the Tea Party isn’t going away just because they’ve won an election. His group is pressing the state Senate to pass the House budget without making changes to it.
“The Tea Party is non-partisan. It does not matter who is in office,” Hemingway said in an email. “If the Republicans misstep, then we will fight to replace them as well. We are fighting for principles, not parties.”
Phil Gagnon, a 47-year-old self-employed carpenter, held a sign at the rally here outside the capitol that said, “It takes a Carter to get a Reagan.”
Gagnon, who said he is a registered independent, also said the Tea Party is nonpartisan and not confined to the Republican party.
“It doesn’t make a difference whether you’re a Republican, Democrat or Libertarian. If you have an idea to deal with the biggest issue, which is the debt, bring it up,” he said.
Gagnon said that spending cuts need to be made in Social Security, Medicare and in the military. He said he believes in a strong defense but that “The military machine is out of control, just like everything else.”
Government spending was certainly the issue on the minds of most at the Tea Party rally here. One man held a sign that said: “$14.2 trillion debt. Is everybody in Congress on acid?”
Ovide Lamontagne, a civic and political leader in the state who narrowly lost the Republican primary for U.S. Senate last year and is expected to run for governor next year, began the rally by holding up a copy of the tax code in his left hand, and a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in his right hand.
Lamontagne called the Constitution “a book of freedom and liberty.” The U.S. tax code, he said, is “a book of tyranny and oppression.”
Calling for a scrapping of the tax code in favor of a “flatter, more equal tax,” he turned and tossed the 4,000 page document into a trash bag held by an event organizer.