St. Joseph , Mo. – With this weeks national convention in Nashville and some major electoral successes, the The Tea Party has moved away from the political margin. Locally, Tea Party activists have also been organizing over the last several months. They're turning their attention to candidates and campaigns - and away from protests and rallies.
But in a special election in St. Joseph, Missouri on Tuesday, their first candidate lost a race for a House seat in the Missouri General Assembly by 30%. The race provides a window into the role of the local Tea Party in upcoming elections.
Jason Gregory was bundled in a heavy coat and gloves against a biting wind. He was greeting voters outside each of the 12 voting precincts on election day in St. Jo.
"Are you voting for Jason Gregory?" "That's something I made habit of not discussing, but I would just like to know who Jason Gregory is!" "Well, I am....I am Jason Gregory. Pleasure to meet you."
Gregory seems a bit awkward in his new, public role, a bit like the new kid who has to introduce himself to the 5th grade class.
He doesn't call himself a Republican, but a conservative, running on the Republican ticket. He says he connects himself more with the nonpartisan, and growing, Tea Party movement.
"People keep volunteering, people keep networking, and it's actually quite fun to be around like-minded people who want to help and make the communities better in their individual areas."
Turnout was just 10%, but greeting the occasional voter, Gregory found his campaign platform was exactly what many voters talked about. 73 year old Roberta Anderson was hurrying in to vote with her husband.
"Out with ones been in politics. Keep the new. Keep our budget balanced. If we ran our budget the way Congress runs their house...our house... we'd be in trouble."
"Have you always been a Republican?" "No."
Gregory's opponent, Pat Conway, the fatherly County Clerk, held on to enough Democrats to win 65% of the vote on Tuesday. He surely benefited from his almost 30 years in the job, and decades of community service.
But outside another polling place at Lafyette Park Baptist Church, Tea Party organizer Andrea Plunkett said she was excited. The new conservatives, she said, were borrowing a page out of the playbook of the enemy.
"We have an email list of about 2,000. They signed up at a Tea Party here or there. We're using Face Book, Twitter, and classes to teach them. We're getting up to speed with the left in terms of how to use those things effectively.
Andrea Plunkett is a 22 year old, social-media savvy, hipster who galvanized fellow conservatives for the Tea Party Protest at Liberty Memorial last April 15th. Police estimated a crowd of 5 thousand people. She and her colleagues advertised Jason Gregory as Missouri's Scott Brown - referring to the dramatic election upset for Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts.
Plunkett says she is not discouraged by Gregory's loss. The Tea Party movement, she says, is gaining ground.
"It's very much about Americans who are concerned with the direction government is going in, people who are frustrated with government in general and they feel people are not listening to them."
The local organizers have formed a new group called Americans for Conservative Training. They'll be recruiting local candidates and training campaign volunteers.
The next battlefront - school board elections this April.