Who’s driving this party, anyway?

Rachel Hoff Contributor
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It did not take long for the rhetoric about the death of the Republican Party and conservatism in the wilderness to dissipate after the 2008 elections. The GOP’s sweep of all three major elections since—in the purple to blue states of Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, no less—shows voters moving back to the Republicans (or away from the Democrats—or both) much quicker than many expected.

But, despite recent electoral successes, one question looms from the “Whither the Republican Party” stories of one year ago: Who leads the GOP?

Does Michael Steele or Rush Limbaugh? John Boehner or Mitch McConnell? Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee? Maybe the leader is Ronald Reagan, whose name conservatives still invoke reverently and often, 99 years after his birth.

Or do the Tea Partiers run things? The vacuum of leadership on the right seems to have created space for individuals around the country to stand up and lead. The Tea Party movement is not a top-down operation, but rather a loose collection of everyday Americans across the nation who decided to get involved, attend rallies and town hall meetings, write letters and articles, and run for office.

While many Americans feel passionately—one way or another—about the Tea Parties, the fact is that the movement still remains an enigma to much of the American electorate. A Rasmussen poll late last year showed that 37 percent of people do not have an opinion of the Tea Party movement.

One of the most mysterious things about the Tea Parties is that they do not seem to have a leader. Many view Sarah Palin as the movement’s de facto leader, especially after her recent speech at the Tea Party convention in Nashville. Former House Republican Leader Dick Armey is another visible figure who organized the 9/12 Taxpayer March on Washington, but his FreedomWorks organization boycotted the Nashville convention entirely. Members of Congress like Michele Bachmann and Tom Price, as well as Sen. Jim DeMint, have also played a major role in Tea Party events. But the movement transcends any individual leader—it’s true grassroots; it’s real populism.

Without a clear, consensus leader, individual Americans are standing up and saying, “I’ll be a leader.” And they are asking their friends, “Will you be a leader?”

This week, many of those Americans and other conservatives of all stripes will gather in Washington for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Hungry for fresh leadership and sound ideas, calls for a new “Contract with America” are loud and clear. A smattering of conservative leaders signed the Mount Vernon Statement yesterday, and the Tea Party Patriots will unveil their “Contract from America” in April.

There is no lack of action, but still the front of the pack remains vacant. In the meantime, conservatives have shown that they can organize, that they have ideas, and that they can win elections. The challenge for the GOP today is to harness this energy without hijacking—and dispiriting—the movement.

Confounding expert predictions, the Republican Party is alive and well in 2010. New, young leaders are stepping up and running for office around the country, saying it’s OUR turn. These Americans are daring to see if the people, not the powers-that-be, can finally exercise responsible leadership and demand accountability. If the Republican hierarchy learns from this movement, instead of trying to co-opt it, the GOP could reap a lasting Reagan-style revolution—not just a short-lived reaction.

Rachel Hoff is a young conservative activist based in Washington, D.C. She developed and implemented a strategy for national media outreach that has established the Young Republicans as the prominent voice of young conservatives, with YR leaders appearing on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, and CBS totaling over $2 million of earned media coverage.