Tea party support helped elect Republicans nationally last week, but local members of both groups aren't sure whether they now want to build bridges or burn them.
The GOP and the tea party share some principles -- particularly for smaller government, lower taxes and free markets.
But the Hamilton County Republican Party chairwoman says the tea party is a clique of conservatives not willing to respect party procedures.
"They've become exclusive and very elitist. Some of them are even cultish," Chairwoman Delores Vinson said. "About what they are good for is siphoning off votes from the Republicans."
And Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West says the local GOP has devolved into an old power structure not open to new ideas, one that doesn't understand the grass-roots effort of the common people.
"It's a new era and the old power structure is having a hard time understanding," he said.
Still, West said, "There's room enough for both of us."
When Chuck Fleischmann won the GOP nomination in the 3rd Congressional District race to replace Zach Wamp, the Chattanooga Tea Party endorsed Savas Kyriakidis, who ran as an independent.
West said Fleischmann wasn't enough of a fiscal conservative for the tea party.
But Vinson said the Republican Party has to appeal to a variety of people. She said the party procedure is to nominate and unite around a candidate.
The Chattanooga Tea Party bucked that system and fielded its own candidate who called himself Republican, she said, even though he had not been vetted in the Republican primary.
She said the tea party is "not trying to work with us."
Fleischmann won the race with 91,891 votes, while Kyriakidis garnered 17,074 votes, according to unofficial election results.
Urge to merge
Now local members of both groups wonder whether they can work together, or if they'll stay at opposite ends of the city -- the Tea Party meeting monthly at the Homebuilders Association of Southern Tennessee off Harrison Pike and Republicans holding weekly Pachyderm Club meetings at the DoubleTree Hotel downtown.
West said bridges can be built.
"The bridge is us walking their direction, and us encouraging them to walk our direction," West said.
Charlie Wysong, another local tea party leader, agreed.
"I don't think there's a rift between the Republican Party and us," he said. "I think there's a rift between [us over] the nomination."
Kyriakidis said he still identifies himself as a Republican and wants to work to improve the party.
He said the local party leadership is "arrogant" and doesn't seem to connect with common people.
"I see there's a structure that says you endorse the R regardless," he said. "I see a swath of independent thinkers who say its endorse the best candidate."
Kyriakidis said he's considered starting a Pachyderm Club chapter on the east side of town for those who cannot make it downtown for meetings.
Marty Von Schaaf, president of the Pachyderm Club, said he hopes to see the two groups coming together in the next few years. He said the tea party represents a rightward shift nationally and that Kyriakidis and West should be part of local Republican leadership.
"If we're on the ball, we're going to reach out to them," he said.
Harold Coker, vice chairman of the local Republican Party, said he agreed the groups shared the same philosophies and needed to come together.
"The tea party movement is where the Republican Party used to be," he said.
Cliff has worked for the Times Free Press for five years and covers Chattanooga city government. He previously covered Rhea County, as well as transportation and growth and development in Southeast Tennessee. A native of Maryville, Tenn., Cliff graduated in 2003 from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis on journalism. Before coming to Chattanooga, he was a crime reporter with Hernando Today, a supplement of The Tampa (Fla.) ...