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Tea Party Dilemma: To GOP Or Not To GOP?

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The Republicans, said Knapp, wanted to turn the Tea Partiers into a source of grassroots muscle for the GOP, and sought to stymie any effort by the activists to create a third party -- an idea Knapp supported.

According to Knapp, one female Republican media specialist at the meeting flatly declared: "Our biggest fear is that the Tea Party will evolve into a third party." Such an occurrence would be a "death knell" to the already shrinking state GOP, the woman said, according to Knapp. "It was very clear that they didn't want this movement to get out of their control," he said.

But not everyone in the group was as opposed as Knapp to working with the GOP. Soon afterwards, he said, one local leader of the group, conservative radio host Mark Williams, signed on with the Tea Party Express (TPE), the movement faction created by a team of high-level California Republican consultants, which loudly backed Scott Brown in this week's Massachusetts Senate election. Williams has since become a prominent TPE spokesman.

Eight months later, the philosophical divide that roiled Knapp's Sacramento-based group is being replayed on a national scale. The Tea Party movement still has not come close to resolving the question of what its relationship with the Republican party should be -- and the issue is creating turmoil in Tea Party circles across the country. "I think what we have in the movement is the GOP trying to take control, and a lot of the groups are trying to fight them on this," Robin Stublen, a Tea Party Patriots (TPP) volunteer, told TPMmuckraker recently.

Stublen's fears appear well-founded. Powerful and well-connected forces within the movement seem determined to harness its grassroots energy for the benefit of the Republican party. But that's not to say it's always a one-way street.

Next month's National Tea Party Convention, organized by the Tennessee-based Tea Party Nation, will feature speaking roles for the party's vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, and for two Republican members of Congress, Michele Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn. One of the confab's organizers, Mark Skoda, recently told TPMmuckraker he'd support inviting RNC chair Michael Steele.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Scott Brown victory, the well-funded TPE -- created by many of the same Republican consultants who launched the 2003 movement to recall California governor Gray Davis -- is becoming an ever more prominent piece of the movement.

In Florida, one Tea Partier who's active with his local GOP organization is suing a Republican political consultant and his ally after they registered the Tea Party as a third political party in the state, then asserted rights to the Tea Party name. Both sides are bitterly accusing the other -- with some justification -- of having ties to the Republican party.

And even the Tea Party Patriots, perhaps the organized faction of the movement that most loudly proclaims its political independence, can't escape the party's reach. In putting together the rallies that brought tens of thousands to Washington last year, it worked closely with FreedomWorks, the conservative advocacy group run by former Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey.

But many of the rank-and-file Tea Partiers whose energy helped launch the movement last spring -- and among whom a more libertarian ideology often prevails -- remain deeply wary of getting into bed with the GOP. And lately, they've started speaking out.

In an impassioned cri de coeur that reverberated around the movement last week, Kevin Smith, a Nashville activist who had worked with Tea Party Nation, denounced the organizer of the national convention as a patsy for the GOP. "What began as cries for true liberty and a public showing of frustration with the big government policies of both Democrats and Republicans," Smith lamented, "has now been co-opted by mainstream Republican demagogues determined to use this as their 2010 election platform."

Shane Brooks, a Texas-based Tea Partier, echoed that message in a recent web video, fondly recalling the early days of the movement last year, and warning "We must not allow the Tea Parties and other patriotic grassroots movement to be hijacked by the GOP."

And several other Tea Partiers have piled on lately to slam the convention in interviews with TPMmuckraker and others, in part because they see it as too tied to the Republican party.

Even Mark Meckler, a Sacramento-based Tea Party Patriots leader, who at one time, according to Knapp, expressed interest in working with the local Republican party, now steers clear of that idea. "The major parties in this nation haven't represented the American people," he told TPMmuckraker in an interview, explaining why TPP was keeping its distance from the GOP. Indeed, a central feature of the acrimonious split between TPP and TPE has been the latter group's Republican patrimony.

As for Knapp, he said he's now working with some of the disaffected Tea Partiers from Tea Party Nation to start building a nationwide third party movement based on Tea Party principles -- with no ties whatsoever to the Republican party. And he denounced his fellow Tea Partiers who have tried to work with Republicans. "They're living in Disney Land," he said, "if they think they can reform the GOP."