DUBUQUE and DES MOINES, Iowa — When presidential wannabe Donald Trump first introduced himself last June to Iowa Republicans, Gregg Cummings stood at near-attention in the Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines, donning his crumpled military hat. He had an American flag in one hand and a microphone in another.

Cummings was asking questions of Trump, probing to see if the real estate magnate hewed closely to America’s founding principles. He takes this very seriously for one simple reason: As the founder of We the People Tea Party of Southern Iowa and a co-founder of the Iowa Grassroots Coalition, he’s working to make sure the Tea Party maintains its strong influence in the state.

“The Tea Party matters because We The People still matters,” Cummings said.

“The Tea Party matters because We The People still matters,” Cummings told LifeZette this week. “And We The People has to still matter because it is the heart of our Great American Experiment.”

A Gulf War veteran of the U.S. Army Airborne Rangers, Cummings lives due south of Des Moines near the Missouri line in tiny Lamoni, Iowa. He doesn’t back down. And he and some Tea Party compatriots have gained influence, and official positions, in Iowa Republican circles.

But it’s not easy. Establishment Republicans often bristle at the Tea Party, which has been wielding increasing power from the state house to Capitol Hill. “Overall, [we are] still walking on eggshells when we work with anyone from the GOP,” said Cummings, who is also a member of the field team for the national Tea Party Patriots.

Waning or Waxing Power?
The national media might say that Tea Party enthusiasm is fading, but in a state that votes for presidential nominees by caucuses rather than open primaries, an active Tea Party’s organizational muscle can still make a big difference.

David Andersen, a political science assistant professor at Iowa State University, said that both the Tea Party Patriots and the Iowa Grassroots Coalition will play substantial roles in the caucuses.

“The Tea Party Patriots have been around longer and have had more of an impact in previous elections, particularly when it comes to turning out voters on Election Day,” he said. “Tea Party supporters tend to be older and more socially conservative than other Republicans and for the past decade have been a huge source of energy within the party.”

As for the Iowa Grassroots Coalition, Andersen points out they are a recent addition to Iowa politics: “The [coalition] is newer and is under the umbrella of Americans for Prosperity [a national conservative group]. So I am going to assume that it is well funded and focuses more on economic conservatism. It is also aiming to have a huge impact in coming elections.”

So, how will the Tea Partiers make their influence felt in 2016?

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The Political Legwork
Cummings travels the state of Iowa weekly, working his political mission.

“I really just do my duty by getting input from all the grassroots folks statewide to tell the national Tea Party Patriots what Iowans think.” Asked if he is a “leader,” Cummings bristles: “No. Communicator. Trainer. Networker. Coordinator. That is very much so how I see myself.”

“We the People of Iowa are sick of big-money establishment candidates like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Lindsay Graham.”

While Cummings the voter has not chosen a particular candidate among the now 17 GOP presidential contenders, he has made up his mind about certain candidates: “We the People of Iowa are sick of big-money establishment candidates like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Lindsay Graham, so we at the Iowa Grassroots Coalition developed The Candidate Honest Assessment Project [an internal, unscientific poll of their membership]. It will show Iowans and the United States that our top five most conservative candidates are not what big money buys in the manipulated polls in big media.”

The most recent Iowa Grassroots Coalition Top Five, with vote counts, were:

  • Ted Cruz – 2056
  • Carly Fiorina – 761
  • Rand Paul – 604
  • Scott Walker – 597
  • Donald Trump – 475

As for the influence of the grassroots on Republican candidates, questionnaires and money speak.

Cummings said that the Tea Party itself (as a 501 tax exempt organization) “usually does not do endorsements.”

But the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund – a political action committee – does. According to Cummings, the group asks the candidates to fill out a questionnaire, then they get input from Tea Partiers from the candidate’s home district. Afterward, they send a team to the candidate and do a face-to-face sit down interview. Only then will they consider an endorsement, and only with the support of members in that district.

Iowans know there’s plenty of time to make up their minds – and plenty of time before they feel a need to satisfy the media’s hunger.

Cummings says they are just shy of 50 organizations within the Iowa Tea Party-Iowa Grassroots Coalition in the state, with activity in all 99 counties. Some members, like Thomas Hansen, of Decorah, Iowa, double as leaders in both the Tea Party and their local Republican committee. Hansen is in fact the Winneshiek County Republican chairman and a co-state coordinator of the Iowa Tea Party Patriots.

Hansen said that despite national media attention on the state’s caucuses beginning earlier and earlier each presidential cycle, Iowans know there’s plenty of time to make up their minds – and plenty of time before they feel a need to satisfy the media’s hunger.

The Iowa Caucuses for the major parties are on two different days: The Democrat Iowa Caucuses are on Monday, Feb. 1, while the Republicans hold theirs the next day.

Uneasy Alliance
As has been the case elsewhere, Republican officials in Iowa seem to see both opportunity and threat in Tea Party power. Charlie Szold, communications director for the Republican Party of Iowa, offered only the standard GOP “Big tent” line.

“The Republican Party of Iowa believes in a big tent that includes many different groups of Republicans,” he said. “We work to elect all Republicans at all levels of the government and welcome all who work with us. We are all rowing in the same direction.”

But according to Cummings, sometimes they are rowing in different directions. That’s why getting Tea Partiers into existing Republican organizations is crucial.

“There are a ton of Tea Party-minded folks on our side that are on county GOP committees,” he said, “and a couple on the state committee. We are doing our best to elect our own to get in those seats.”

Meanwhile, Cummings will keep traversing the state as if on a Ranger mission, trying to make sure those seats, and the presidential caucuses as well, become ensconced in conservative hands.​ And if the mission includes holding the presidential candidates’ feet to constitutional fire, well, Cummings and his Tea Party compatriots are up to the task.