Tea Party zeroes in on Senate race, hosts candidates forumPATRICK D. MUIR YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLIC YAKIMA, Wash. -- The Tea Party movement is growing up and getting serious -- an appearance by a John Wayne impersonator notwithstanding. The One Nation Under God Tea Party Forum held Wednesday night was markedly different from the street rallies that gave birth to the movement last April. For one thing, there was less shouting and more political organization -- something the evening's emcee, Central Washington University political science professor Matt Manweller, said was a conscious choice. "We must evolve," he said afterward. "We've got to be more than just, 'We're upset.'" Leaders in the conservative Tea Party movement, buoyed by Scott Brown's Republican takeover of Ted Kennedy's former Senate seat in Massachusetts, believe they can effect similar change in Washington. Specifically, they're aiming at the U.S. Senate seat of Democrat Patty Murray of Seattle. Five Republican candidates for that seat attended Wednesday's forum, all touting the merits of small government, free markets and strict interpretation of the Constitution. Physician Art Coday, farmer and former NFL tight end Clint Didier, chiropractor Sean Salazar, author and small-businessman Chris Widener and energy trader Craig Williams attended, although Williams was not given speaking time because of what Manweller called "a miscommunication on our part." Williams did address the crowd of several hundred briefly during a portion of the event reserved for audience members to speak. The common theme among the organizers and the candidates was that if someone can harness the populist power of the Tea Party movement in Washington state, he can beat Murray. Her seat, which she's held since winning election in 1992, is considered "safe" for Democrats by Congressional Quarterly. "I can win this election," Didier said to applause. "My number was 86 for the Redskins, and I will 86 Patty Murray." Widener echoed that sentiment, alluding to Brown's surprise win in Massachusetts. "We have an opportunity to win," he said. "The winds are changing. The moderate, independent voters are now turning to the conservative." Indeed a sizable portion of the Tea Party movement is made up of people who never got involved in politics before a year or so ago. It started with anger over federal stimulus funding created by the Bush administration and expanded by President Barack Obama, and there was still plenty of that apparent Wednesday. "We got a communist right now in our government," shouted John Larson of Yakima, during the public comment portion of the evening. "He's running our government." Leaders of the movement such as Manweller and event organizer Kirk Groenig, an Ellensburg insurance agent, don't begrudge them that anger. But they want it focused. "They're still mad," Groenig said after the event. "But they've gotten over that. Now they're getting organized." Hence the persistent calls, from organizers and candidates alike, to donate to campaigns and to work politically within the system. As Manweller put it, last year's Tea Party rallies gave conservatives voice and proved they weren't alone. He urged the crowd Wednesday to heed the example of Brown in Massachusetts and get beyond that. "On that night in Massachusetts we all learned something -- or we should have learned something," he told them. "That lesson is this: Movements must evolve or they die. Our movement must evolve."
SARA GETTYS/YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLIC Gene Howard, center, a John Wayne impersonator, talks to U.S. Senate candidate Clint Didier before the start of a Tea Party forum with conservative candidates running against Patty Murray held at the Yakima Convention Center on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010.