Ron Formisano: Tea Party movement not as grass-roots or frugal as it used to be

June 24, 2014 

Ron Formisano, a University of Kentucky history professor, is author of The Tea Party: A Brief History (Johns Hopkins, 2012).

By Ron Formisano

The news narrative earlier this year had it that Republican Party pragmatists were knocking the Tea Party on its heels to prevent the nominations of weak candidates.

Now the Tea Parties have come roaring back, with success in primaries in Texas, Mississippi, Nebraska and elsewhere. The defeat in Virginia of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by a Tea Party economics professor on a shoestring budget has put the icing on the tea cakes.

The reasons given for Cantor's defeat have included everything except Chris Christie's bridge fiasco, though few have mentioned a 14 percent turnout and an open primary in which Democrats who cannot stand the sight of Cantor could vote for his opponent. But it is precisely a low-turnout election in which the far-right Fox-Tea Party base has the most impact.

But reporting on what from the beginning was a network of Tea Parties has been consistently misleading.

The movement originally included grass-roots chapters, political-action committees, astroturf sugar daddies or corporate-backed fronts acting as PACS and employing dozens of operatives around the country. Journalists often conflate these groups, giving quotes from corporate and PAC officials as if they speak for the grass roots.

The Koch brothers' political arms, Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity, are not grass-roots; they give money and support to any candidate to the far right, but are not local organizations. Reporters do not seem to know the difference.

The Tea Party Express is an offshoot of a Republican consulting firm and PAC. Tea Party Nation started as a networking website and a for-profit entity. In 2009-10, the one organization that could claim to be grass-roots was the Tea Party Patriots, which claimed hundreds of local chapters. No longer.

The Atlanta-based Patriots is now a PAC, raising money from many small donors purportedly to give to Tea Party candidates. But of the $7.4 million the Patriots spent by May of this year, just $184,505 went to candidates. In Kentucky, Tea Partier Matt Bevin received just $56,000 for his challenge to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Meanwhile the group pays consultants and its officers much more. Patriots chairwoman Jenny Beth Martin pays herself two salaries that this year will top $450,000, more than that spendthrift President Barack Obama. Before she became a Tea Party star, Martin's husband, in trouble with the IRS, went bankrupt, and Jenny Beth was briefly cleaning houses.

The Patriots' finance director, Richard Norman, rakes in $15,000 a month to oversee fundraising, and the Patriots have given two direct mail firms he runs at least $2.7 million since June 2012.

The Patriots are not alone in living high off the hog. The six major Tea Party fundraisers have spent $37.5 million, with less than $7 million going to candidates. The Patriots, Express and the Madison Project have doled out less than 5 percent to candidates, while the latter set up a $50,000 retirement fund for its staff.

The Senate Conservatives Fund recently paid $228,000 to a company owned by its executive director, Matt Hoskins. Last year, $52,000 went to redecorate its Capitol Hill office.

Consulting firms allied with these groups — often their officials wearing different hats — have big paydays. The Tea Party Leadership Fund has given $250,000 to eight consulting firms.

One must wonder what the farmers, small businessmen and elderly conservatives who send checks to these groups think?

Columnist Jennifer Rubin harshly called them "right-wing charlatans." But they have merely succumbed to the ways of Washington's political class and evolved as many populist movements do: to cash in.

Former congress members who become millionaire lobbyists are said to "monetize their government service." Tea Party PAC officials have succeeded in monetizing their movement service.

The grass-roots Tea Party rank-and-file of 2009-10 now forms a voting bloc flexing its muscle in Republican primaries (and they write checks to the PACS).

And they still are succeeding in driving the Republican Party ever further to the no-compromise right. But maybe they should take a closer look at their leaders.

Ron Formisano, a University of Kentucky history professor, is author of The Tea Party: A Brief History (Johns Hopkins, 2012).

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