WASHINGTON (AP) — Tea partyers insist they're not to blame for Republican election losses in congressional and presidential elections, faulting the GOP establishment for showing little fight.
This election year, the establishment is fighting — against the tea party insurgents challenging incumbents who the Republican Party is convinced stand a far better chance in November.
The internal GOP showdown will be decided in primaries starting Tuesday in Texas and stretching through the year in Kentucky, Mississippi, Kansas, Michigan and elsewhere. Burned by losses in winnable Senate races in 2010 and 2012, establishment Republicans are aggressively challenging this year's class of tea party-backed candidates.
Tea partyers, dismissing reports of their demise, say they're ready to use their unbending political force against both President Barack Obama and the Republican establishment.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a superstar to the movement and a potential 2016 presidential candidate, says he's hopeful and optimistic that "we're going to turn this country around."
Hundreds gathered Thursday as the Tea Party Patriots, one of the major grassroots groups, marked the movement's fifth anniversary at a Washington celebration that toasted everything anti-Washington.
They stood and applauded wildly for Cruz, who precipitated the 16-day partial government shutdown last fall with his opposition to Obama's health care law, and warmly received two other tea party senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah.
Tea partyers, who helped Republicans capture control of the House in 2010, made clear they don't like what the GOP establishment has done to their conservative agenda of limited government, free-market policies and what they consider fidelity to the Constitution. They signaled they will work hard to elect their uncompromising candidates no matter what the establishment does.
In Kansas, the Tea Party Express endorsed Milton Wolf, who is opposing three-term Sen. Pat Roberts in the Republican primary.
Cruz, who has helped raise money for groups targeting incumbent Republicans, has refused to endorse his state's senior senator, John Cornyn, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, in Tuesday's primary. Cornyn faces Rep. Steve Stockman.
"Liberals fight every step," said Steve Gibson of Columbus, Ohio. Establishment Republicans, he said, say, "we can't win, we might as well not fight."
Gibson said he had offered to help Matt Bevin, the Republican businessman challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. McConnell, according to Gibson, is conservative 70 percent of the time, but then "throwing in the towel every time."
Gibson was particularly upset with McConnell's recent votes on allowing the nation to borrow more money.
Keli Carender, national grassroots coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, said the strength of the group was reflected in the $1.2 million and counting that it raised in 10 days.
To the "establishment and permanent political class," Carender said, "we don't need their millions; we've got our own."
Republicans blame the tea party for losses in winnable races in 2010 and 2012 in Colorado, Nevada, Delaware and Indiana that many believe cost the GOP a Senate majority.
As evidence of the party's tough tactics, a political deal was engineered in Colorado. Tea party-affiliated Ken Buck, who lost a close Senate race in 2010, stepped aside to run for the House while more mainstream Rep. Cory Gardner launched a Senate bid.
As Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said this week: "We're not anti-conservative. We're just anti-people-who-can't-win."
Tea partyers point to mainstream Republicans who lost Senate seats in Wisconsin, Virginia, North Dakota and Montana in 2012, as well as to two defeated presidential candidates — John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
Addressing the tea party event, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., was interrupted by the crowd, which stood and cheered when he said, "It's high time we retire (House Speaker) John Boehner." When the applause died down, Huelskamp completed his sentence that it was "high time to retire John Boehner's biggest excuse that we only control one-third of the government."
Viveca Stoneberry of Spotsylvania, Va., said she was disillusioned with the Republican leadership because Boehner and others "pretend to be on the side of conservatives." Irene Conklin of Gainesville, Va., said Boehner needs to "take a solid stand."
Boehner said Thursday that he has "great respect for the tea party and the energy they brought to the electoral process. My gripe is with some Washington organizations who feel like they've got to go raise money by beating on me and others."
If Boehner and McConnell were drawing the movement's ire, Sen. Ted Cruz was collecting praise.
He drew a rousing response when he told the crowd he was "absolutely convinced we are going to repeal every single word" of the health care law.
Support for the tea party has declined slightly since 2010, when members rallied around opposition to the health care law.
Just ahead of the 2010 elections, an Associated Press-GfK poll found that 30 percent of adults considered themselves supporters of the tea party movement. By October 2013, that figure had dipped to 17 percent, then rebounded to 27 percent last month.
Separately, a CBS News-New York Times poll this week found that 50 percent of Republicans who say they back the tea party complain that the party's candidates are not conservative enough, while just 19 percent of non-tea party Republicans said the same.
While tea partyers expressed frustration with the GOP, they were fierce in their opposition to Obama.
Speakers described the president as an emperor, radical and socialist whose administration has abused its power. They railed against the Internal Revenue Service's audits that they argue target conservatives and other political groups on the right as well as the NSA surveillance as an intrusion on Americans' privacy.
Members of the Tea Party Patriots pressed for broader congressional investigations of the IRS and the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. They argue the administration is involved in a cover-up and greater oversight is necessary.
Associated Press writer Charles Babington and Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.