When it comes to a beverage of choice, it looks as though the Napa Valley still prefers wine over tea.
On Saturday, roughly 600 people gathered on the sprawling carnival grounds of the Napa Valley Expo for the so-called “super rally” that would kick off the Tea Party Express’ “Reclaiming America” bus tour.
The turnout was a far cry from the 4,000 to 5,000 people that representatives from Tea Party Express’ Sacramento office said they were expecting only days before the Napa rally.
Tea party supporters, who skewed older, were a mostly subdued group, seated picnic-like on lawn chairs and blankets for two hours of music and speeches.
Adding to the event’s dampened atmosphere was that no GOP presidential candidates appeared, despite reports that at least one would be attending. Also, the event was met with vocal protests from several hundred representatives of the Democratic and Green parties and progressive groups.
Despite the modest turnout, the day’s featured speakers and performers offered up high praise for the Napa rally.
“I think it’s going great,” said Howard Kaloogian, chairman of the Our Country Deserves Better political action committee. The committee — which was formed by a pair of former GOP consultants — bankrolls the Tea Party Express project.
Onstage, Kaloogian attempted to fire up the crowd early in the program by tearing into recent actions of Congress. “I have a news flash for Washington politicians,” he said. “You don’t create jobs. The American people create jobs.”
Kaloogian’s offstage comments, however, seemed to acknowledge that turnout fell short of expectations.
“The trick to a good rally is to have a small room,” he said, motioning toward a largely empty carnival lot. “We’ve got a pretty big room here.”
Asked about earlier crowd projections provided to both law enforcement and local media by representatives from the action committee’s Sacramento office, Kaloogian said only, “I don’t know who said that. We didn’t say that.”
As the rally played out inside the Expo’s gates, a crowd of about 200 people gathered on Burnell Street to protest the tea party event.
While the Expo’s powerful sound system ensured that the protesters didn’t drown out those speaking onstage, the demonstrators’ presence hardly went unnoticed.
“Those protesters are desperate. They know we are winning,” said Kaloogian, drawing a brief burst of excitement from an otherwise docile crowd. “They know all they can do is yell and shout, but we can shout louder because we have a message of
Outside the gates, several protesters noted that many of the tea party’s goals — including scaling back unemployment and improving the nation’s economy — are also shared by the progressive left, but that the two sides favored different methods.
Inside, however, onstage speakers were less delicate in addressing such ideological differences.
“It’s good to bring the ‘makers’ and the ‘takers’ together for a conversation,” said Joe Getty, co-host of the “Armstrong & Getty” radio show.
Some who attended the tea party event noted the smaller-than-expected turnout.
“It’s been good so far. I just wish there were more people that came out,” said John Miller of Sonoma, adding that he had been attending tea party events since 2009.
Only a few feet away, Dina Hanson of Napa — one of a handful of anti–tea party protesters who ventured through the Expo’s gates — had a different take on the tea party crowd.
“It’s quite a bit smaller than I thought it would be, which makes me happy,” she said.
Larry Gullicksen, who came from Concord with his wife, Judy, offered up one explanation for the small size of the Napa rally.
“Well, this is California,” he said, noting that the state is known for its liberal politics.
Regardless of the crowd’s size, almost all of those interviewed during Saturday’s rally expect that the tea party will have a significant effect on the 2012 elections, rejecting the notion that success in the 2010 election was a one-time phenomenon.
“It’s going to be tremendous,” said Judy Gullicksen, who predicted that the GOP would retake both the White House and the Senate next November.
Backstage, Amy Kremer, chair of the Tea Party Express project, said none of the Republican White House hopefuls would be able to defeat President Barack Obama in 2012 without the backing of the tea party.
Without the organization’s support, candidates would be unlikely to even appear on the November ballot, she added.
“I think the tea party is going to decided who the (GOP) nominee is,” Kremer said.
Former Senate candidate Sharron Angle also expected that the tea party would help the GOP pick up enough Senate seats to gain control of the upper house in Washington.
Angle drew national attention last year after tea party support vaulted her to the front of a crowded GOP U.S. senate primary field in Nevada, despite being shunned by Republican leadership. She was ultimately unsuccessful in her bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“This is the American mainstream,” Angle said before taking the stage. “We’re here to make an impact on Washington, D.C.”
After roughly two hours of entertainment from various speakers and performers, a pair of Tea Party Express buses packed up and headed toward their next stop in Sparks, Nev.
The tour is scheduled to make 28 more stops before pulling into Tampa, Fla. for the CNN-Tea Party Express candidate debate on Sept. 12.
Before leaving, representatives from the organization said they still felt as though the day’s mission had been accomplished.
“Tea Party Express gives energy to local groups. We help them generate more press and give some excitement to the local movement,” Kaloogian said. “They know they’re not alone.”