Topeka Don't call Chris Tawney or Chuck Henderson leaders of the Flint Hills Tea Party.
Yes, they're active members, ready to send out e-mails, participate in rallies and town hall meetings and come to Topeka to monitor the Legislature. But their Manhattan-based group has no leaders — on purpose.
So far, Kansas' tea party is a loose coalition of groups without a statewide hierarchy. The lack of a formal statewide structure appeals to some members, who say it shows the movement's grass-roots character.
The tea party has become a visible part of Kansas politics, a group to be wooed by candidates, particularly conservative Republicans. Its frustration with the federal health care overhaul appears to have translated into legislative proposals to assert a right for Kansas to opt out.
But it's not clear yet what impact the tea parties may have on the 2010 midterm race, the first major electoral test since the movement rose up last year among disgruntled conservatives to protest big government and other issues. Around the nation, members are debating whether to participate directly in political campaigns in an effort to make their influence felt. However, in Kansas and many other places, most groups maintain they can make a difference while remaining leaderless, loosely organized and outside the process.
"There is nobody to tell me to go there and do that," said Tawney, a Manhattan nurse. "All of us have our own commitments and our own lives."
Leaders of the state Democratic and Republican parties are still trying to assess the tea party's strength in Kansas and get some sense of its goals. Tea party participants acknowledge that they're still trying to set plans themselves.
Kansas Democratic Party Chairman Larry Gates says he believes the movement will burn out because conservatives already dominate the state GOP. Others aren't sure how long the movement will last, seeing it largely as a reaction to President Barack Obama.
"It's oftentimes a lot of anger, venting about the federal government," said state Sen. Kelly Kultala, a Kansas City Democrat. "It's hard to figure out what they want to accomplish, just besides saying no."
The new federal health care law is a big issue for tea party members because of its mandate for most Americans to buy health insurance, starting in 2014. With the tea parties' support, the Kansas Legislature recently adopted a nonbinding resolution asserting its sovereignty under the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says all powers not delegated to the federal government are left for the states. Legislators are considering a tea party-backed proposal to prohibit the state from forcing any individual or business to buy health insurance.
It's difficult to say how many Kansans are part of the movement because of the lack of a single, statewide organization.
The Flint Hills Tea Party has an e-mail list for about 300 people, with alerts handled by Henderson, an engineering designer from Manhattan. In Wichita, Lynda Tyler, the organizer of Kansans for Liberty said various groups — her Web site includes the John Birch Society on the list — share an e-mail list of about 9,000 names.
Greg Ward, a Tonganoxie real estate agent who leads the Kansas Sovereignty Coalition, suggested the movement could have between 25,000 and 30,000 members, based on attendance at rallies last April.
"The tea party movement is just kind of the bigger movement. Within the movement, there are more focused groups," Ward said.
Tea party participants said they're not planning to start a new political party in Kansas. Instead, tea party members hope to influence the major parties, particularly the GOP.
Ward said the Sovereignty Coalition plans to watch candidates and campaign for or against them. Its biggest targets are so-called RINOs — "Republicans In Name Only."
Tyler said her group has launched a "precinct project" to win precinct committee spots within the GOP. She said it also plans to advise voters about candidates.
"The groups are doing all kinds of different things," Tyler said. "It's like herding cats. We've got to keep everybody going in the same direction."
Such efforts are in their early stages.
The Sovereignty Coalition is registered in Kansas as a political action committee but reported less than $500 in contributions in 2009, none more than $50. Tyler said her group has raised about $14,000 since last fall, using it to stage rallies and events. She said all donations are $250 are less — and most commonly, under $100.
Tawney attended a recent town hall meeting on health care sponsored by Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, who's wooing tea party members as he runs for the U.S. Senate. "We're watching you," she said, greeting him with a smile. "Stay conservative."
Tiahrt said the Kansas tea party movement's loose organization has helped it grow quickly. "The only inconvenient part of it is, who do I contact?" he said, smiling. "I want to consult with them."