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Still a disorganized 'tea party'

The conservative movement, energized by Republican Scott Brown's Senate victory in Massachusetts, struggles to find national unity.

January 25, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey
  • “Tea party” demonstrators stage a weekly protest at an intersection in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“Tea party” demonstrators stage a weekly protest… (Josh Ritchie / South Florida…)

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.


FOR THE RECORD:
'Tea party' activists: An article in Section A on Jan. 25 about the internal disputes of the conservative "tea party" movement said that the vast majority of the $1.3 million that was raised from July to November by the group Tea Party Express went to a Sacramento consulting firm. In fact, most of the money paid to Russo, Marsh and Rogers was used to pay for vendors and advertising. The firm was paid about $100,000 in fees and commissions in that period. —

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.

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