Still a disorganized 'tea party'
The conservative movement, energized by Republican Scott Brown's Senate victory in Massachusetts, struggles to find national unity.
“Tea party” demonstrators stage a weekly protest at an intersection in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Josh Ritchie / South Florida Sun-Sentinel / December 12, 2009)
Reporting from Washington - When Matt Clemente went to a December meeting of "tea party" activists in Worcester, Mass., he was shocked to find the hall packed.
"They were all talking about Scott Brown," he said.
That was when Clemente, a student at College of the Holy Cross, realized Brown wasn't just another Republican running a long-shot campaign for the seat held by liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy since 1962. He actually had a chance to win, and the conservative activists who had been organizing around the country against the healthcare overhaul, bank bailouts and increased government regulation could put him over the top if they could get organized in time.
Clemente is also a state coordinator for the Washington-based advocacy group FreedomWorks. After the Worcester meeting, he called the group and reported what he had seen.
The Senate race became a big moment for the sometimes fractured and ragtag group of right-wing activists.
"The movement rallied around the idea of defying the establishment," said Eric Odom, founder of another tea party network, American Liberty Alliance, which ushered volunteers to Massachusetts in the final days of Brown's winning campaign. "This had far less to do with Scott Brown and far more to do with proving we could coordinate and act in a mass way, showing we could move political mountains. We don't view this as support of a candidate; we view it as opposition to a candidate."
But as much as the various groups contributed -- with e-mails, volunteers, money, TV ads -- the victory still had the feel of a crowd running to the sound of the guns.
The movement is far from a well-disciplined army. Its pivot from protesting to politics has been fraught with internal disputes, turf wars and lawsuits. It has continued to struggle with its relationship to the Republican Party, which would very much like to harness the movement's energy without being subsumed by it.
Recent weeks have seen activists tangled in infighting over an attempt to organize a national convention. In Florida, tea party leaders have filed a lawsuit accusing a lawyer of hijacking their movement. Separately, two high-profile national groups are at odds amid accusations of coziness with the Republican establishment.
Underlying each dispute is a debate about how a movement born of an anti-incumbent fervor and homemade revolution ethos can cooperate with the political party it sees as tied to Wall Street.
"People certainly feel betrayed and ripped off by the Republican Party. But I think people are getting out of revenge mode," Odom said. "The primary goal is to defeat people who are not looking out for our interests, in defeating healthcare, cap-and-trade. That goal is to win politically."
There's evidence of success on that front beyond the Massachusetts vote. Tea party activists helped topple a Republican Party chairman in Florida who endorsed moderate GOP Gov. Charlie Crist in the Senate primary over the more conservative Marco Rubio. In California, Republican Senate candidate Chuck DeVore credits tea party activists with helping raise more than $1 million in small donations.
But DeVore said the financial effect of the tea party movement was hard to measure. "It's so decentralized I wouldn't even know how to do that," he said.
Born as a series of locally organized protests inspired by the Boston Tea Party, the movement remains a series of small clubs, some loosely connected by Web-based umbrella organizations, some not.
The largest single grass-roots network, Tea Party Patriots, claims to have nearly 1,000 tea party groups in its database. There is general agreement that it's time to connect the outposts, but little consensus on how.
Plans for a National Tea Party Convention in February drew early attention for its keynote speaker -- former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- and its gesture toward unity. The event, planned by Nashville attorney Judson Phillips, bears all the trappings of a political convention, with lobster tail on the menu and an invitation aimed at "delegates" representing tea party groups from around the country.
But activists balked at the cost -- $560 a ticket, not including a hotel room for the weekend. The price was necessitated by the cost of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and speakers' fees, Phillips said.
Palin's fee is more than $100,000, with travel expenses, according to a source familiar with the booking. After the hubbub erupted, Palin suggested she wouldn't keep the fee, saying she would use the money to "contribute to campaigns, candidates and issues that will help our country."
Phillips, an attorney with a history in local Republican politics, would not discuss the matter. The criticism only mounted as Phillips acknowledged that the convention, like his for-profit social networking site Tea Party Nation, is a money-making venture.
"I'm not a socialist. I don't begrudge people trying to make money, but that's not what the tea party is about," said Antonio Hinton of the Knoxville Tea Party. "That convention has nothing to do with the tea party movement, as far as I'm concerned. I love Sarah Palin. I don't believe she knows who she's speaking to."
Phillips took another lesson away.
"The people who are involved in this movement, one of the constants is they really don't like authority that much," he said. "You go up to someone and tell them they're going to do something and they say, 'Who says? No, I'm not.' They don't want some big organization in Washington or anywhere else telling them what to do."
Fear of Republican takeover is also a persistent thread in tea party disputes.
When Tea Party Express, a project of a Sacramento consulting firm run by Republicans, tried to team up with Tea Party Patriots, a grass-roots group, it sparked an internal fight on the Patriots' national board. The debate heated up after Tea Party Express filed its most recent financial disclosure form: It raised more than $1.3 million from July to November, with the vast majority going to the consulting firm.
Although many groups say they want to stay separate from the Republican establishment, only a few are pushing to create a third party. Many activists believe such a move would only split the conservative vote and put more Democrats in office.
Everett Wilkinson, Florida state coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, contends it is better to put pressure on the existing parties than to try to create a new one. Wilkinson was among a group that filed a lawsuit recently to block lawyer Fred O'Neal from registering the Tea Party as a new political party in the state.
Such fights can get personal. O'Neal ally Doug Guetzloe, a radio talk show host, blasted Wilkinson: "He rolls out of bed last year, stands on the corner with a sign and all of the sudden he's Sam Adams."
Still, well-funded, well-established conservative groups are trying to corral the chaos in a direction that benefits Republicans. Among those is FreedomWorks, led by former House Republican leader Dick Armey.
FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe is blunt about his hope that the tea party movement will "take over the Republican Party." FreedomWorks plans to fund opposition research, mail, door-to-door and get-out-the-vote efforts in 50 House and a dozen Senate races with the hope of electing ideologically pure conservatives, Kibbe said. It's raising money for its "Take Back America" campaign, but has yet to report its fundraising.
Tax forms show Armey was paid $300,000 in 2008 for working 22 hours a week at the education arm of the group, as well as another $250,000 for work at the advocacy wing.
Activists say FreedomWorks was central in coordinating September's massive rally in Washington. But activists debate whether to accept it as a tea party organization.
"We have people in positions of power claiming to be our leaders and mischaracterizing us," said Michael Kelly of We the People N.C. in Charlotte. "It makes people mad."