Tea Party Convention Gives Boost to Newcomer Politicians

Doris Gentry arrived in Nashville on Wednesday with little more than a pair of crossed fingers. She had flown in from Napa, Calif., to attend the National Tea Party Convention but did not have one of the 600 tickets for the sold-out event.

"Once I decided I just have to come, I was on the waiting list," she said.

So when registration opened Thursday afternoon, Gentry waited outside. And she waited. And she waited. Finally, after about five hours, she said a slot opened up from a cancelation, and she was able to buy a ticket in. "I'm like a dog with a bone," she said. "I'm tenacious."

That tenacity comes from more than just a desire to hear Sarah Palin, the convention's keynote speaker on Saturday night. Gentry is one of the handful of convention-goers who's actually running for office and trying to figure out how to use the tea party movement as a vehicle for getting elected.

Gentry ran unsuccessfully on the GOP ticket for State Assembly in her Democrat-heavy district two years ago. But she said she's hoping the emergence of tea party groups and the tips she picks up about messaging and organizing at the convention will give her run the fire it needs this time around.

Gentry, 55, president of the manufacturing company Lift Mates, said she's involved with and has the support of lots of tea party groups in her home community. And, like many participants at the Nashville conference, she's drawing confidence in part from Republican Scott Brown's upset win last month in the Massachusetts Senate special election.

"Scott Brown was 30 points down and he won. I'm 23 points down," she said.

Many of the convention-goers, including Gentry, aren't trying to work around the GOP. Gentry aims to secure the GOP nomination again this year.

Rather, tea party activists and tea party-supported candidates are trying to use the movement to reshape the Republican Party from the inside.

Charlotte Bergmann, who's running to be the GOP challenger to Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen in Tennessee's 9th District, is one of the test cases of this strategy.

Bergmann, who drove to the convention from Memphis, is supported by Mark Skoda -- the Memphis Tea Party chairman who on Friday announced a new political organization to support and fund conservative candidates in the tea party mold. It was an early step toward solidifying the loose-knit conservative movement into something focused more on political races than political issues.

Bergmann, president of marketing firm Effective PMP, said this is her first time running for office, though she's been politically active in her home community for years -- making regular trips to Washington, D.C., to speak with Memphis-area representatives in Congress.

"I'm not a professional politician. I'm just passionate about the people in my community," she said.

Bergmann said it would have been difficult to enter the race through the GOP in pre-tea party days, but that the growing movement offers the kind of enthusiasm needed to mount a successful campaign. And their ideals are right in line with hers: limited government, better security, less spending.

"This is our year -- 2010," she said. "We're taking our country back."

Others at the Nashville convention were there to learn more about registering conservative voters, learn more about organizing local tea party groups and be among like-minded activists.

The convention itself is somewhat of an experiment.

"Every time we do something, it's like we've never done it before, but it's not stopping us," said Judson Phillips, head of convention organizer Tea Party Nation.

The lineup of breakout sessions and talks reflects a desire among supporters to make the evolving tea party movement more organized and deliberate, with the ultimate goal of impacting elections.

Skoda, in announcing his new political group Friday, said tea party supporters have to do more than just hold signs at rallies, which he said hasn't necessarily gotten a lot of attention in Washington.

"The way you change that is by getting people elected," he said.