How the Tea Party Works

By: Cristen Conger

Birth of the Tea Party: A Timeline

The Tea Party often is associated with prominent names like former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidateSarah Palin and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, but the person responsible for initially getting the feet on the street for the movement's first rallies was far-removed from big-ticket politics. Washingtonian Keli Carender was working as a math and résumé writing teacher at a non-profit when she decided to put together what's considered the first Tea Party rally in Seattle [source: Kaste]. On Feb. 16, 2009, before the Tea Party had mushroomed into a formalized entity, Carender relied on blogging and social media to attract about 200 people to a protest against the federal government's economic stimulus package [source: All Things Considered].

The movement received its first major public attention three days later when CNBC commentator Rick Santelli called for a "Tea Party" on national television. Referred to as "the rant heard 'round the world," Santelli argued against the administration's mortgage bailout plan on the floor Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and the clip went viral online [source: CNBC]. The next day Tea Party enthusiasts dotted around the country came together via conference call to form the National Tea Party Coalition, and on April 15, 2009, up to 500,000 supporters participated in the movement's first "Tax Day" protests [source: CNN]. And that spring, with the Obama administration putting the legislative wheels in motion for its future healthcare overhaul, Tea Party fury continued to mount around three primary platforms [source: Stone]:


  • Cutting off additional public spending and halting the expansion of the federal government.
  • Stopping any increase in taxes.
  • Balancing the federal budget by eliminating legislative earmarks.

During its first year, the Tea Party, much like the more politically liberal Occupy Wall Street movement, attracted intensive media coverage. In January 2010, for instance, the Economist magazine named the Tea Party "America's most vibrant political force," partially due to its success with helping elect Scott Brown, Massachusetts' first Republican senator in 30 years [source: The Week]. But while its frequent and colorful protests, typically featuring activists dressed up in colonial costumes and carrying around copies of the U.S. Constitution, were effective attention-grabbers, the movement had yet to coalesce into a unified body. To be clear, the intent of the Tea Party wasn't to form a viable political third party, but vet candidates and causes and provide national exposure to their elections.

On Feb. 5, 2010, the Tea Party kicked off its first national convention, headlined by Sarah Palin. Six hundred delegates from local Tea Party chapters converged to get energized, hash out objectives and prepare for the upcoming midterm Congressional elections that posed a prime opportunity to oust the Democratic Party from its majority position. The convention also provided a better glimpse into who exactly comprised the Tea Party ranks.