Conservative Republicans running for public office have few better friends than Cleta Mitchell.
An unrelenting and outspoken ideological warrior, Mitchell's campaign finance expertise and political advice have helped many A-list conservatives, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah, as well as 2012 GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint.
And her early and fervent support of the Tea Party helped propel the once-fringe movement into a national force.
So as establishment and grassroots conservatives clash for the soul of the Republican Party, Mitchell is among the few party elites who command respect from both, giving her a unique perspective — and influence — within the current GOP.
"If you made a list of the most effective 10 conservatives in Washington not in public office, she'd be high on the list," said conservative political columnist George Will, a longtime friend and client of Mitchell's. "And she might be in the top 10 even if you included" elected officials.
"She's what the Energizer Bunny would be if it had real energy."
That tenacity is on full display during her latest challenge -- defending Tea Party groups against the IRS for its controversial targeting of the movement, which she calls the "greatest internal threat" facing the nation today.
IRS officials said their actions weren't politically motivated, which the 63-year-old attorney with Foley & Lardner calls a "lie." She accuses the Obama administration of using the agency as a "political enforcement arm of the Democratic Party" to silence its critics.
"I don't know what else matters if we let this happen," the Oklahoma native said in the conference room of her Georgetown waterfront office. "If I have to spend the rest of my life helping to mobilize, organize to stop this incredible assault on our rights as citizens, as Americans, so be it."
Although her comments may seem hyperbolic to some, those who know Mitchell say she takes on only clients and issues she deeply believes in — a philosophy that fuels her professional work with an almost religious zeal.
"She lights up when she's talking about [the IRS scandal] because you can tell this is something that she's very concerned with and very passionate about," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, a group Mitchell is defending. She "cares about the same causes that we do."
Mitchell has been a fierce opponent of campaign finance restrictions like the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002. She lobbied hard for the courts to strike down the law, which the Supreme Court partially did eight years later in the landmark Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission case.
"In the world of campaign finance and the expanded world that represents, she is the most influential conservative in the field," said longtime friend C. Boyden Gray, a former U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
Supporters of campaign finance reform portray Mitchell as a major obstacle to fixing an election system they say is unfairly tilted to the advantage of wealthy corporations, individuals and groups.
"She's really been one of the major foot soldiers in the strongly conservative army trying to knock the pins from under all campaign finance laws and regulations," said a leading campaign finance reform advocate who requested anonymity. "She's shrill but smart."
Yet political conversion was needed before Mitchell assumed her status as a conservative power broker. As a young adult, she was attracted to the Democratic Party because she believed it was the "party of the people." After earning bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Oklahoma, she served in the state's House of Representatives from 1976 to 1984 as a Democrat, and was chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.
But soon after leaving office, she became disillusioned with her party's "big government" approach to problem-solving and its push to expand social welfare programs and address income inequalities among Americans. She moved to Washington in 1992 with her husband, Dale, and fully embraced the GOP. They plan to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in March with a trip to the Oakland A's spring training camp.
"One of the Ten Commandments is 'Thou shalt not covet,' one of the seven deadly sins is envy, and I think this administration is telling America to be un-American in terms of coveting and being envious instead of counting our blessings," she said.
In addition to representing political candidates and members of Congress, Mitchell has provided legal advice to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. She also served as co-counsel for the National Rifle Association in a Supreme Court case involving the 2002 federal campaign finance law.
Yet Mitchell has never been afraid to criticize the Republican establishment, routinely accusing GOP leaders of being out of touch with the party's base.
"It's really breathtaking to me that any Republican leader in Washington can possibly believe the Republicans can win any election if they've alienated the grassroots activists and citizens," said Mitchell, who considers herself a conservative first and Republican second. "Do the math — our people stay home, they don't win."
Such talk has made her a hero within the Tea Party movement.
"When you work with Cleta, you feel like she has your very best interest at heart and that she does get frustrated and irritated by the same things that you do," said Sharron Angle, an early Tea Party star who Mitchell represented during her 2010 Senate campaign against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "She's truly on your team."