JEFFERSON CITY — A new, loosely organized network of conservatives has arisen in Missouri with hopes of turning the passion of tea party rallies into winning results in local and state elections.
In recent months, tea party activists have organized against a sales tax for St. Louis public transit. In Kansas City, they have raised more than $20,000 to train political volunteers and candidates. And at the Missouri Capitol, they have lobbied repeatedly for a November ballot issue attempting to reject a federal health care mandate.
But it's still unclear whether the movement will leave much of a mark on Missouri politics.
Tea party participants have no coordinated plan for the 2010 elections, no centralized fundraising machine, nor any statewide leader for their cause of limited government and less spending. And that's exactly the way they want it.
"When the people rise up, you want them to rise up on their own — as one," said Paul Sims, a cattle farmer and disabled former firefighter from the Rolla area who has been involved at various tea party events.
Sims, who ran unsuccessfully as a little-known Republican lieutenant governor's candidate in 2008, personifies several aspects of the tea party movement. Chiefly, he is a self-described conservative. Although many tea party participants shun party labels, they overwhelmingly describe themselves as conservatives and have more often voted for Republicans than Democrats.
Sims also is co-director of the Missouri chapter of the Patriotic Resistance, one of many groups that have latched on to the tea party movement since its large rallies last year.
More than 50 such groups teamed up last month to sponsor a forum for U.S. Senate candidates in Jefferson City. Candidates from all parties were invited. But the top contenders — Republican Rep. Roy Blunt and Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan — did not attend. And fewer than 100 people were in the audience, leaving plenty of empty chairs.
The hotel meeting room, coffee and tea for the forum were paid for by the Missouri chapter of Americans for Prosperity, whose leader is Republican former state House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden.
Republican insiders also have been involved in organizing other tea party events.
One of the coordinators of the St. Louis tea party group is Gina Loudon, a Republican consultant and unsuccessful 2008 Missouri Senate candidate. She has appeared on national TV as a tea party spokeswoman, helped launch a drive to buy Ford vehicles because the company received no government bailout money and has aided tea party activists in opposing the St. Louis tax initiative.
A tea party rally that drew several thousand people to Kansas City's Liberty Memorial last year was organized by college student Andrea Plunkett, who worked on Republican Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.
Plunkett has since helped spin off a group called Americans for Conservative Training, which she says has about 1,600 members and has raised more than $20,000.
Others are making their first foray into political activism.
Thomas Grady, who attended a tea party rally in St. Louis last year, subsequently founded the Missouri Sovereignty Project, which now has about 1,300 members. The group is asking candidates to pledge to enforce the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, reserving powers for states that are not specifically granted to the federal government. Grady said the group also plans to use its Web site to rank state legislators and to tally every time members of Congress use the word "constitution."
"I had never walked out of the house to protest until November last year," said Grady, an investment adviser with master's degrees in business administration and liberal arts.
St. Louis tea party participant Annette Read, a stay-at-home mom whose sons are in college, said she launched the group "I Heard the People Say" in early 2009 because of frustration over "fiscal irresponsibility." The group has since helped lead Capitol rallies for a state constitutional amendment bucking a federal mandate for people to have health insurance.
The group set up an informational booth at the Republicans' annual Lincoln Days conference and has an e-mail distribution list of about 1,500. But it has pledged to members that it will not to endorse candidates.
"Their outrage is not being heard by any of the politicians," Read said. "We don't want to be absorbed by the GOP."