If there's a place the tea party movement would seem poised to thrive, it's Minnesota, a state long friendly to anti-establishment campaigners like Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura.
Minnesota's loose-knit tea party activism shares the defiant mood that benefited Perot and Ventura. But so far, it lacks a magnetic personality to build around, and has sprouted around issues, not candidates.
That has left questions about whether the conservative movement will be a force or a footnote here in this year's election, the chief test of its impact.
Even tea party insiders are tempering expectations for a movement that doesn't have much money and only a budding infrastructure.
"People need to realize we've only been around a year. What we've done in a year is an amazing thing. We're just getting started," said Cindy Maves, 48, a school bus driver who presides over meetings of the Rochester Tea Party Patriots. "We just hope this year to keep our people active in campaign mode."
Minnesota serves as an example of the gap that remains nationwide for the tea party between organizing rallies and electing candidates.
Some Minnesota Republican officials maintain that the tea party passion will matter by drawing voter attention to conservative issues the GOP supports. But Democratic leaders dismiss the party as just another Republican faction, already overlapping the party's message and membership.
It is difficult to put numbers on Minnesota's tea party. Statewide coordinator Toni Backdahl maintains an e-mail list of about 3,200 addresses collected during events and from Web site visitors. Turnout has been strong at rallies to oppose federal spending and the just-passed health care overhaul, but organizers can't say if it is an indication of commitment to the movement or idle curiosity.
While a handful of Minnesota tea party chapters have registered as business entities with the secretary of state, none has signed up with state campaign regulators and there are no imminent plans for that. The distinction matters because it prevents the "party" from endorsing candidates and limits other campaign activity by the group.
The group hasn't done much fundraising. Backdahl reflected recently on the $4,000 she sank into the effort, compared with a mere $150 she gathered in contributions. The Rochester wing had a $1,000 balance in its account as of mid-March.
Some in Minnesota's movement think their best hope to influence the political debate is to work within traditional party channels, and a smattering of tea party converts will be delegates at the upcoming Republican state convention. Republican state Reps. Tom Emmer and Marty Seifert lead a seven-person race for the GOP's gubernatorial endorsement.
Joe Meyer, a 25-year-old tea party member from Winona, said he'll be an uncommitted delegate and hopes to use his position to make the GOP more fiscally conservative.
"You can't affect any change unless you join something and try to pull them your way," he said, faulting Republicans for spending too freely when they controlled Washington.
The overlap is even greater for Minneapolis tea party leader Deanna Boss. As a delegate, she plans to support Emmer at the convention. And she's going a step further: Boss is running as a Republican for a Minnesota House seat from Minneapolis.
"If you're not making a difference on the candidates and helping a campaign win, there's not much you can do after the fact," said Boss, who sees no conflict between representing both the tea party and GOP.
But others in Minnesota's movement want nothing to do with the established major parties.
George Burton, an electrical contractor from Brainerd who is toying with an independent bid for Congress, said he resents suggestions the tea party is a GOP offshoot.
"The Republican Party is as kryptonite as the Democratic party at this point," Burton said.
In 1998, Minnesota voters fed up with their Democratic and Republican options lashed out by electing Ventura governor. The ex-pro wrestler campaigned as someone who would rebate a surplus to taxpayers. In 1992, presidential candidate Perot, who also emphasized fiscal restraint, did better in Minnesota than the nation as a whole, getting almost a quarter of Minnesota votes.
This year at least, tea party members appear ready to cast their lot with established party candidates. On a damp March night, a few dozen tea party members gathered at a Rochester motel for a monthly meeting. Four Republicans vying for office in southern Minnesota showed up, too.
But, said Republican Party deputy party chairman Michael Brodkorb, "It would be naive for anyone to believe that this is a segment of people who are just going to vote lock-step with the Republicans," he said. "We have a responsibility to reach out to them and to win them over."
Minnesota Democratic Party chairman Brian Melendez said he's unfazed by the tea party phenomenon and doubts it will cost his party's candidates in November.
"They've been in the mix all along," he said. "They just haven't been calling themselves the tea party."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)