In an event designed to highlight the scope of its influence, the Cincinnati Tea Party hosted a press conference Feb. 24 with its candidates lining the stage of the Lakota Freshmen Campus Auditorium in West Chester.
With 101 candidates ranging from precinct captain to Congressional hopefuls filling three risers on the stage, they were outnumbered by folks in the auditorium's seats who came out to see the candidates and afterwards view a film challenging global climate change theories.
Among the candidates were Michael Kilburn, running in Ohio's 2nd Congressional district to unseat Republican Jean Schmidt; Ohio Attorney General candidate Steve Christopher; nearly a dozen state house and senate candidates; and Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Monzel, a late arrival, who is running for Hamilton County commissioner.
"We were very happy with the turnout," says Mike Wilson, Cincinnati Tea Party founder and a candidate for the 28th District Ohio House race, who organized the event. "We're very excited about what the party has been able to do in just a year. We've got a strong voting block and, with the number of candidates we have, we're showing that we're able to move the discussion."
As part of the event, candidates were asked to sign agreements — some critics called them “loyalty oaths” — to uphold the party's standards backing limited government, fiscal responsibility and free markets. The agreements, which also included a vow to "engage the opposition in a civil and respectful manner" and "act with transparency and responsibility," were notarized at the event.
Wilson (pictured) says that even more candidates — including state auditor candidates Seth Morgan and Dave Yost; Cincinnati City Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz, who’s competing against Monzel for county commissioner; and Washington veterans John Boehner and Steve Chabot — have signed the pledge but couldn't attend the event.
Boehner is the U.S. House Republican leader, while Chabot will run against Democrat Steve Driehaus in hopes of regaining the Ohio 1st Congressional District seat he held from 1994 to 2008.
The Tea Party isn't taking their pledges lightly, Wilson warns.
"We're going to hold all of them accountable to it," he says. "If they don't follow it, we'll call them out. Accountability's something that's been lacking in politics for far too long."
Meanwhile, others pointed to the high turnout as a signal of big things in the party's future.
"Most of the people on that stage have never been involved in politics before," says Ted Day, a Montgomery resident running as a precinct captain. "People are upset. We trusted politicians to be doing their jobs, and people are realizing that not only are they not representing us, they're not representing anyone but their own interests."
Champ Clark, an organizer with the Montgomery-Blue Ash Tea Party, says the party expects to pick up momentum as elections grow nearer.
"(Potential party members) are out there already, they just need to know where to go and how to get involved and they'll show up," he says.
Clark points to the party's second annual "Tax Day" event April 15 at the University of Cincinnati's Fifth Third Arena as the next marker of that momentum. Doors will open at 4 p.m. for the event, which starts at 6 p.m. and will feature an in-person appearance from Fox News commentator Sean Hannity.
Last year, the event drew 5,000 people to Fountain Square.
During the Feb. 24 event in West Chester, Tea Party President Chris Littleton cited a Quinnipiac poll of Ohio voters published earlier that day as a reason for the party's swelling numbers. According to the poll, 46 percent of voters said they view Republicans unfavorably, while Democrats drew a 50 percent unfavorability rating. The Tea Party, however, was viewed unfavorably by only 23 percent of those polled.
Still, the party does face "challenges," Wilson says.
The foremost might be its reputation — part of the reason for the "civility" clause in the Tea Party pledge, which was added to help battle the less-than-positive view of some Tea Party members by the public.
At the party’s recent national convention in Nashville, former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) claimed in a speech that President Obama was elected because "we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country." Tancredo added that Obama was elected by "people who could not even spell the word 'vote'..."
Locally, some Tea Party rallies have been marred by attendees threatening TV news reporters and brandishing signs with slogans viewed as racist.
"We know how we're portrayed by some less-than-friendly media members, like CNN and MSNBC," Wilson says. "But I think that if people talk to our candidates, get to know us, they'll see we're not crazy."
And though all but three of the candidates identified themselves as Republicans on their pledges, Wilson maintains that the local Tea Party isn't about partisanship.
"This isn't a Republican thing or a Democrat thing," he says. "This is about the government and how it represents the voters."