Five years after Rick Santelli’s rant on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange that sparked a nationwide movement, the Tea Party had one message to deliver to Washington, D.C., on Thursday: they are not going anywhere.
"I started getting active right when the shit hit the fan in 2009," said William Evans, a seven-year Navy veteran.
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Evans has stayed active ever since and is now the senior aide to the Richmond Tea Party. He embodied the crowd of hundreds who gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the grassroots movement: political neophytes just five years before, they have coalesced into a powerful presence.
The activists convened at the Hyatt Regency hotel, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol, to celebrate the birth of their movement and hear from politicians including Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann, and Louie Gohmert.
Catherine Engelbrecht, who founded "True the Vote," a fair election group, asked the audience how many had no political experience five years ago. The majority of the room raised their hands.
"What in the world are we doing?" she said.
It was similar for Jane Lawler-Savitske, a member of the Northern Virginia Tea Party, the George Mason Republican Women’s Club, the Army Officers’ Wives’ Club of the Greater Washington, D.C. Area, and Quilter’s Unlimited. Lawler-Savitske, a Springfield, Va. resident, said she had been a Republican for years but her activism did not really begin until 2008.
"We had to," she said. "There was no choice,"
Alma Jackson said the mindset of local groups in Northern Virginia is "focused." Lawler-Savitske and Jackson said they are eyeing at least three open seats in Congress to fill with Tea Party candidates.
Engelbrecht continues her activism, as well, despite being the target of more than 25 audits and investigations since she founded her nonprofit in 2010. She encouraged attendants to keep fighting the IRS, which is in the process of finalizing rules that would limit the political activity of social welfare groups.
While some were critical of the GOP establishment, others warned that Republican infighting and primary battles take the Tea Party’s eye off the ball.
When Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R., Kan.) said it was time for Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) to "retire the excuse" and that Republicans only control one half of one-third of the government, he could not even finish his sentence.
The idea of Boehner leaving public office drew a standing ovation and the longest applause of the day.
"I’m not very happy with the Republican establishment," Evans said. "The Democratic Party has been completely taken over by the progressive movement, and I believe that’s happening now with the right."
Evans said he is fighting progressives in both parties and has his sights on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.).
However, the theme of the speech delivered by Bachmann, a Tea Party darling, was that Republicans must pick their battles wisely because "elections matter."
Bachmann praised the Tea Party by thwarting President Barack Obama’s agenda and taking the gavel "out of Nancy Pelosi’s hands" in 2010. However, there is "still a ways to go," she said, shifting the focus to the Senate in 2014.
"One thing that the progressive left movement understood is that elections matter," Bachmann said. "Does that have your attention? Do elections matter? Absolutely they matter."
Bachmann told the Washington Free Beacon the Tea Party should focus more on taking power away from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) rather than purity tests.
"Right now the number one problem we have isn’t necessarily RINOs," she said.
"The number one problem we have is Barack Obama in the White House and Harry Reid in the Senate. We need to focus on what’s achievable."
Bachmann said the Tea Party would be better served focusing on ousting Democrats in the Senate, particularly in West Virginia, Montana, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Arkansas.
"These aren’t just going to fall into our lap," she said. "We have to work for them, but I think we can. But we have to stop with the purity test, because no one agrees on the purity test anyway."
Bachmann said she understands the frustration felt by Tea Party members who are unsatisfied with the Republican leadership.
"Trust me, I live with it everyday," she said. "I have to contend with Republicans every day in the House of Representatives."
"But the one thing that you realize is that it’s like a family," Bachmann said. "You contend with each other in the family, but when you go outside you stand up for your brothers as much as you possibly can."
"It’s never going to be perfect," she added. "Get over it. Get the best you can."
Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) emphasized the need for a "bigger" Republican Party that reaches out to more people, "not just those of us here."
"When we present our message, and we want a bigger crowd and we want to win politically, the message has to be a happy message," he said. "One of optimism, one of inclusiveness, one of growth, a message that actually brings up the people who are poor among us, brings up those who are long-term unemployed and find them some jobs."
"Our message is that, but we have to figure out a way to make sure that everybody knows that that’s what we’re here for," Paul said.
Whatever battles lie ahead for the Tea Party, the fight is not expected to be easy.
"The Tea Party has become a force that is taking away power," Evans said. "And when you take away power from anybody you’re an automatic enemy."