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Tea for 6,000

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Shelby Blakely: “If we could unseat Harry Reid, that would be great. If we could get Nancy Pelosi to shut up, that would be even greater.”
Photo: AP | Susan Walsh

Say what you will about the Tea Party movement and its somewhat misinformed membership (only 2 percent knew that taxes had actually gone down under President Obama’s administration), you cannot deny that it has picked up steam in Nevada.

“We couldn’t be happier with what you guys are doing!” says Shelby Blakely, executive director for the Tea Party Patriots, a group that organized in January 2009 (after passage of the stimulus package) and which numbers 70,000 actively involved members nationwide and more than 100,000 Facebook friends.

The movement’s message of 1) fiscal responsibility; 2) limited government; and 3) free markets, has caught on in Nevada, perhaps because it’s the state that gave the nation Harry Reid, or perhaps because many Nevadans are fed up with Republicans, Democrats, independents, Greens, what-have-yous. Blakely says her group’s primary goal is to “unseat all fiscally irresponsible incumbents,” adding, “If we could unseat Harry Reid, that would be great. If we could get Nancy Pelosi to shut up, that would be even greater.”

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(Tea) party on! (01/10/10)

And Nevada’s emergence as a Tea Party state is somewhat staggering; in just under a year, the movement has generated at least nine groups throughout the state, numbering more than 6,000 people who meet regularly to schedule rallies, according to Blakely. In addition, she points to the success of the Precinct Project, in which members of the Tea Party Patriots are becoming precinct committee officers, allowing them to become voting members of the Republican Party, voting on platforms, representing their neighborhoods at caucuses and attending county conventions. Subsequently, they are able to vote for people to attend the state convention, and, finally, the national convention. “If we’d had Tea Party people in place to fill vacant PCO positions, John McCain would not have gotten the nomination,” Blakely says. “Our goal is very simple—to use the GOP infrastructure to put forth conservative candidates who can win; that way, we get somebody to vote for, instead of just voting against somebody else.”

Blakely uses Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts as an example of her movement’s effectiveness. “We had groups phone-banking in that election, and we mobilized very quickly. We can be ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

It’s extremely worrisome to the movement, then, that Jon Scott Ashjian has not only begun his own party in Nevada—the Tea Party of Nevada—but is also running on the Tea Party platform against Reid. Mitt Romney last week pleaded that no one run as a third-party candidate for the Tea Party; that the movement’s goal was simply to, in Blakely’s words, “take the Republicans and Democrats closer to the middle.”

“We find [Ashjian’s party and his candidacy] to be suspect,” Blakely says, mirroring the current theory that Ashjian’s candidacy is little more than a ruse to ensure Reid gets re-elected by splitting the GOP vote. “No one knows who the leaders of the grassroots Tea Party of Nevada are.” She calls Ashjian “genuinely misguided,” and says that history shows “third-party candidates put power in the hands of progressive liberals,” Ross Perot being the most prominent recent example.

True, Ashjian has about as much chance of getting elected as Ralph Nader, but at least his platform—smaller government, fiscal responsibility, cutting small-business taxes, investing in education and creating jobs—mirrors the goals of the Tea Partiers.

Even so, there’s at least the appearance of one-upsmanship within the movement. Blakely was quick to point out that her group is not to be confused with the Tea Party Express (the group coordinating the nationwide tour that starts March 27 in Searchlight, Reid’s birthplace) or Tea Party Nation, which recently hosted a rather expensive convention in Nashville. “Our group is the voice of the people,” Blakely clarifies. “Tea Party Express is funded by GOP strategy groups, and they’re trading on the Tea Party name. They don’t have that volunteer base. The same applies to Tea Party Nation.”

For the detractors who dismiss the Tea Party as a fringe movement aiming to only get conservative candidates re-elected, Blakely counters, “We’re a fiscally conservative movement. We do not touch social issues.”

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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