As their Florida brethren vow to dump the Tea Party label for a more-effective "brand" after Democrats made gains in the 2012 elections, the leaders of grassroots conservatives in California say their movement is strong and is being revived by the controversy over gun control.
"When someone says the Tea Party's dead, I don't think so," said Sal Russo, the Sacramento GOP political consultant who founded Tea Party Express, a network that since it began in early 2009 has connected millions of conservative activists, raised millions of dollars, and used its clout to back once-unknown political figures such as Sarah Palin.
"Of course, the brand has been hammered," Russo said this week. "But the ideas haven't been hammered - and that's why they will always come back."
Conservative pundits who have long been active in the Tea Party say that while many people in the movement were disheartened by President Obama's re-election, more of them have been re-energized by his announcement this week of his plans to curb gun violence.
"This going after and trying to mess with the Second Amendment really angers a lot of Tea Party members and folks who support them," said Brian Sussman, a KSFO radio talk show host.
To drive home that point, Sussman and talk show host Melanie Morgan - also a Tea Party favorite - have invited hundreds of people from California to a "Save Our Second Amendment" rally at the City Arms gun store in Pacifica on Saturday. It's one of several such gun-rights rallies being held around the state that day, Sussman said.
Tea Party members, many of whom are libertarian-leaning, care about issues such as taxes and less government intervention in their lives, Sussman said, and "they're saying the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. They take the Constitution very seriously."
Last year's losses
The rallies in California come as the Tea Party movement faces questions about its potency in the wake of the November election, when Obama handily beat Republican Mitt Romney, and Tea Party candidates lost to Democrats in states including Indiana and Missouri.
This week, the South Florida Tea Party said it is dropping the Tea Party label, saying it has a "negative" brand.
In a recent analysis on the Fox & Hounds website, which examines California business and politics, GOP strategist Tony Quinn received sharp criticism from Tea Party members after he suggested that the group, with its support of fringe candidates such as U.S. Senate hopeful Todd Akin of Missouri - who went down after he used the term "legitimate rape" during his campaign - helped prevent the GOP from taking control of the Senate in 2012.
Stances that angered women, Latinos, independents and youth voters, Quinn said, contributed to the movement's losses. This week, an NBC/Wall Street Journal national poll found the Tea Party's popularity at its lowest ever, with 47 percent of respondents giving it an unfavorable rating, while 23 percent gave it a favorable mark.
Tea Party vs. GOP
But California Tea Party leader Russo said that despite Romney's loss, the Tea Party "again exhibited electoral strength while the GOP establishment stumbled." He pointed to 27 new Tea Party conservatives in the House and three new Tea Party conservatives in the Senate.
"Despite the wishful thinking of liberal Democrats and many in the Republican establishment, the Tea Party is stronger than ever in Congress," Russo said.
Sally Zelikovsky of San Rafael, founder of the Tea Party group known as the Bay Area Patriots, scoffed at the idea that the movement is dead - and is even more passionate about the suggestion that the name should be dropped.
"Heck, no," she said. "Democrats did a really good job of misbranding us as the extreme-radical, homophobic, racist group."
But efforts such as the one in Florida to rebrand the movement are "misdirected energy," she said. "You don't see Occupy Wall Street changing their name because of some people being called tree huggers."