Updated 2:46 p.m. ET, 2/27/2014
Washington (CNN) – The Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest groups in the grassroots conservative movement, hosted a fifth anniversary celebration Thursday in the nation's capital, marking five years of change in the country's political climate.
With a string of speakers, the event focused on the movement’s milestones, such as the 2010 takeover of the House of Representatives and the re-energizing effect the tea party had on right-leaning political activists.
A push for broad appeal
Many speakers also hit back against the charge that the tea party has racist elements - a charge that has been consistently and vehemently denied by activists in the movement.
Conservative firebrand Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky warned the crowd that the tea party movement needs to be more inclusive and steer away from incendiary rhetoric about President Barack Obama – a nod to recent comments by gun rights activist, rocker, and tea party favorite Ted Nugent, who recently called Obama a "subhuman mongrel," sparking outrage and calls for Republicans to distance themselves from controversial figure.
"There are times, and I don't think it's our movement, but there are times when people are using language that shouldn't be used. I recently criticized someone for using some of that language and I'm not going to bring it up but I will say that we can disagree with the President without calling him names," Paul said. "There are people out in the public who are taking away from our message. Let's try not to be part of that."
"If we want a bigger crowd and we want to win politically, our message has to be a happy message, one of optimism, one of inclusiveness, one of growth," Paul added.
The tea party goal
Paul's speech focused largely on limiting the size of government and reining in federal spending. Paul said government spending is on autopilot, as evident by October's partial government shutdown, where only a fraction of government function was halted and spending continued automatically.
Sen. Ted Cruz, whose attempt to block parts of the President's sweeping healthcare law was the catalyst to the government shutdown, said millions of Americans, including Democrats, are fed up with Obamacare.
"We are making the case for the American people and let me tell you I'm absolutely convinced we are going to repeal every single word of Obamacare," Cruz said to applause.
Cruz, elected to the Senate in 2012 with broad tea party support, has drawn criticism from fellow Republicans for bucking leaders in his own party.
Cruz praised Paul's filibuster last year demanding more information from the Obama administration on the use of drones. The Texas senator also pointed to gun rights advocates' win over legislation pushing background checks on firearm sales, which failed to move forward in the Senate last April.
"That was ya'lls victory, it was the power of the grassroots," he said. "Liberty is never safer than when politicians are terrified."
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, another senator elected in 2010 with strong tea party support, said the movement is at a pivotal moment with an opportunity to push a more conservative agenda.
"As citizens, we have certain rights that are ours. Certain rights that we were born with as American citizens - the right to live under a limited-purpose national government; one that recognizes your right to privacy; one that recognizes your right to have most of the governing done at the state and the local level; one that recognizes the right not to live under and emperor who thinks he has every power to legislate under the sun," Lee said.
Lee also suggested the tea party movement should capitalize on the changing political landscape within the GOP.
"The size of the hole in the Republican Party is, I believe, exactly the size and the shape of a conservative reform agenda."
The tea party’s evolution
"What you did for America is stellar," Rep. Michele Bachmann told the audience. "It was life changing to the life blood of this nation, because you and the movement that we represent took the gavel out of Nancy Pelosi's hand...You did that."
Bachmann rose to fame during the birth of the tea party and launched a 2012 presidential bid with wide support from the movement, winning the closely-watched Iowa straw poll in August 2011.
After a disappointing sixth place finish in the Iowa caucuses five months later, the Minnesota congresswoman dropped out of the race for the GOP nomination. And last year, she announced she would not be seeking re-election this November.
Most activists in the grassroots movement called for less federal taxes and spending; a curtailment of some federal powers in the areas they believe are the sovereign domain of state and local governments; and of course opposition to the large federal programs such as the bailouts and the stimulus, as well as Obamacare and the Wall Street and banking reforms, which were both passed in 2010.
The tea party movement instantly gave energy to the Republican Party, which lost the White House and lost more seats in both the House and the Senate in the 2008 elections. That energy was witnessed at large tea party rallies throughout 2009 and 2010, as well as the noisy opposition to Obamacare at congressional town halls during the August 2009 break.
The movement is credited with helping Republicans take sweeping victories in the 2010 midterm elections, when the GOP, thanks to a 63 seat pick up, regained control of the House, and narrowed the Democrats' majority in the Senate. And the movement is also credited with pushing the party, and the lawmakers it elected to Congress, further to the right.
Fighting back against the critics
One prominent theme among the speeches Thursday was a pushback against critics who insist the tea party movement is racist.
The NAACP in 2009 passed a resolution condemning what it characterized as rampant racism in the grassroots conservative movement. The NAACP claimed that conservative activists had engaged in racist behavior, for example, by waving signs containing symbols or slogans demeaning to African-Americans and President Obama, in particular.
Also, the NAACP claimed that tea party supporters think issues of importance to African-Americans get too much attention.
Last October, Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Florida, used an image of a burning cross in an email to supporters that compared the tea party movement to the Ku Klux Klan.
High-profile tea party supporters have long argued against the notion that their movement has racist elements.
Keli Carender, a tea party activist, said her “biggest surprise” about her involvement with the movement were the charges of racism.
“I have never been called a racist in my life before because I am not,” she said in a short speech.
“My parents marched for civil rights and they are tea partyers and so they were dumbfounded. They were like, huh? How can we be these horrible people that they are saying that we are – and that it stuck. We have to work so hard to overcome that.”
Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, was elected in the 2010 tea party wave that helped Republicans take back the House. He joked that “the tea party patriots are so racist, they decided that they wanted a Puerto Rican Mormon to be their congressman” – a reference to himself.
Others took a more serious approach. Jeffrey Lord, a contributing editor to the American Spectator, turned the tables on the left, saying they’re the ones with a racist history.
“These are people with a long and wretched political history of depending on any and every scheme imaginable then and now that judges their fellow Americans by their skin color,” he said. “And they have the nerve to call the tea party racists? It is more than past time to call them out (applause) and tell the party of slavery, segregation, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan (and) racial quotas to quit judging their fellow Americans by skin color.”
K. Carl Smith, an African-American and founder of the Frederick Douglass Republicans, works with members of his party on minority outreach. As the GOP works to diversify its base, Smith offered advice on how to spread the core principles of the party.
“We must make Frederick Douglas an integral part of the conservative message,” he said. “If not, we're doomed for failure.”
How the tea party started
The first tea party protests broke out in February 2009, as the new President campaigned for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 law, better known by most Americans as the Recovery Act or the stimulus.
The stimulus was the first major bill pushed by Obama as he took over in the White House, and he signed the measure into law just a few weeks into his presidency. The law was designed to respond to the severe recession and skyrocketing unemployment, which the President inherited, by saving and creating jobs by pumping money into the economy. The original price tag of the measure was $787 billion, which was later revised upward to around $830 billion.
The stimulus, along with the Wall Street and auto bailouts implemented a few months earlier under President George W. Bush, are largely credited with sparking the creation of the tea party movement. Credit also goes to CNBC anchor Rick Santelli, whose rant on live television five years ago against the various federal programs, including a move to use taxpayer dollars to help those facing home foreclosure to keep their homes, helped energize activists.
"President Obama, are you listening?" Santelli exclaimed.
While it was successful in the House in 2010, the failure of the GOP to recapture the Senate in 2010, and again in 2012, was partially blamed on GOP candidates with tea party support that were deemed too controversial or conservative for the general election electorate.
And the tea party movement's influence in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination was also questioned, as the more conservative candidates such as Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum, lost out to Mitt Romney, who did not enjoy widespread support from grassroots activists.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, a conservative from Texas, said the tea party movement arose from the "doom and gloom" of the economic recovery acts of the early years of Obama's presidency.
"Republicans didn't appreciate the majority that they were given by the tea parties in 2012 and we nominated a wonderful man, not because he was the best candidate but because it was his turn," Gohmert said of Romney. "We've got to restructure the playing field that we're playing on."
But those wishing to write the movement's obituary would be mistaken. Tea party backed lawmakers pushed House Republicans to help shutdown the federal government last fall in a battle over funding the health care law. And this year, six of the 12 GOP senators up for re-election face primary challenges from the right.
"We have a very real, real opportunity to throw the sand in the ears and stop it and take the gavel out of Harry Reid's hand this November," Bachmann said. "Let's not blow it."
Tea party movement activists and supporters make up around two-fifths of the GOP, according to a new CBS News/New York Times poll. The survey also indicates that they want more ideological purity when it comes to Republican candidates. Half of tea party supporters questioned in the poll say their party's candidates are not conservative enough. Only 39% of non-tea party Republicans feel the same way.
As for Democrats, two-thirds questioned say their candidates are about right when it comes to ideology.