By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
TAMPA — With the election season intensifying, candidates are looking to the mass collection of tea party groups statewide for support and endorsements.
In nearly all of Florida’s 67 counties, there are more than 100 tea party groups, among other concerned citizen groups, according to FloridaTeaParty.net, which bills itself as the “grassroots hub” of the state’s Tea Party movement.
“A lot of candidates come to us and ask for endorsements,” West Orlando Tea Party President Ron McCoy told Florida Watchdog.
“The question we ask is: where have you guys been the last three years?”
Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party, said the anti-incumbent sentiment that has taken root in Florida has allowed many more individuals to participate in the political process and choose more appropriate candidates typically shunned by party insiders.
“The GOP establishment is not really able to push their candidates as much as they used to,” said Wilkinson.
“People are looking to doing their own research on candidates, and they aren’t necessarily following the whims of the party leaders in the big cities.”
Wilkinson added that this robust grassroots movement has grown to become a powerful force in Florida politics.
“We’re way bigger than people realize; the mainstream media doesn’t recognize that. We’re still fired up, and I believe you’ll see it in the fall,” said McCoy.
“When we see that 70 percent or 80 percent of the country frustrated with Congress, I think the tea party has a vital role — talking about fiscal responsibility and ending crony capitalism.”
“Candidates are starting to listen and it’s encouraging,” added McCoy.
“In most races, there isn’t much of a question where the tea party will line up,” said Central Florida Tea Party founder and Florida Political Press editor Tom Tillison.
Tea party power is evident in the high-profile Republican primary battle in the newly configured 7th Congressional District, featuring incumbent U.S. Rep. John Mica and 24th district U.S. Rep. Sandy Adams, who had represented District 24 but was redrawn into Mica’s district during the redistricting process.
The race recently was boosted when Adams received the endorsement of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
“An endorsement by Sarah Palin, who has a huge following, does sway opinions because it solidifies the conservative credential of the candidate in question,” explained Tillison.
Deana Rohlinger, associate professor of sociology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, has studied the rise of tea party movements in the state and attributes their overall success to their philosophical rigidity and universal disenchantment with the “beltway politics” of Washington, D.C., politicians.
“Florida’s tea party groups are actually much more protective about the core ideas than other tea party groups around the country,” said Rohlinger.
“They are very careful of outside groups, especially from the outside, which hope to poach or co-opt the movement. Members are very savvy and truly hope to be able to influence the political party to their own liking,” she said.
“The groups have gotten people way more interested in electoral politics.”