Is it a party, a movement, or just a loose collection of angry people?
About 140 activists will gather this weekend in Marshfield to decide the role of tea parties in Wisconsin's political future.
On the same day as the state Democratic convention in Middleton, organizers will gather behind closed doors and out of sight of the public and the media to decide if this "loose coalition" of tea parties should endorse candidates.
It is a decision that could give the nascent movement clout in shaping this year's election. But it could also cost members their grass-roots appeal — and their independence.
"I think that there are a lot of people in the coalition who would like to take the next step in terms of the political process," said Kirsten Lombard, head of the Wisconsin 9-12 Project, a Madison tea party. "But I think there are a number of people who feel like the minute you endorse someone, you lose power in certain ways."
The issue came to light recently with the rise of Republican senatorial candidate Ron Johnson, often referred to as a "tea party favorite." Johnson won the Republican endorsement after entering the race less than a week before the state convention.
Though the victory was largely attributed to his popularity among tea party activists, the coalition released a statement last week saying it had not officially endorsed anyone.
Of course, gauging tea party support is not easy, given the group's disparate nature and lack of a hierarchy. Even getting a handle on this weekend's meeting is tough.
Unofficially, one or two members from each of the state's 70 or so tea parties is expected to attend. The meeting is being steered by Lora Halberstadt, organizer of the Racine TEA Party, who volunteered for the job. And the agenda, as of Monday, was still being finalized.
"I often say that it is like herding cats, and it is," said Tim Dake, organizer of the Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty, a tea party group in Milwaukee. "We don't really have a structure. We are just a group of concerned citizens who want to see change."
'It's about ideologies'
It is this kind of approach that reminds UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden of several 19th century political movements.
"They are not really a political party yet, and they might never be," he said. "They fall more in line with the Progressive and temperance movements."
The Temperance Movement, which targeted alcohol consumption, started in the 1800s and eventually led to Prohibition. Though the amendment to ban alcohol was eventually repealed, the country's drinking habits never returned to their previous levels.
Many tea partiers hope their movement will effect similar change, this time focusing more on fiscal issues like lower taxes and smaller government.
"It's about ideologies, not a particular person," said Dan Horvatin, president of the Rock River Patriots.
Horvatin will attend this weekend's meeting, but he is among the many who say they will not support endorsing candidates. To do so, he said, lessens the impact of their message. He said it was better to keep educating people on the issues and holding politicians accountable.
"We don't endorse candidates, but we do call them out," he said.
All of this, however, will play out behind closed doors. Dake said that was because organizers do not want their message distorted by the media.
"It's a very democratic thing — a lot of yelling and a lot of screaming," he said. "It gets messy. We'll tell you what we decide when it's all done, but how we get there is our business."