WASHINGTON — When the Tea Party Patriots threw its support last month behind Matt Bevin, the underdog conservative challenger in Kentucky who is trying to unseat top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, president Jenny Beth Martin pledged that the group would be "putting our money where our mouth is."
So far, its super PAC has mustered just $56,000 worth of mailers in Kentucky on Bevin's behalf — less than half the amount it has paid Martin in consulting fees since July.
The Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, which blew through nearly $2 million on expenses including fundraising, polling and consultants in the first three months of this year, isn't the only one spending meagerly on candidates.
A Washington Post analysis found that some of the top national Tea Party groups engaged in this year's midterm elections have put just a tiny fraction of their money directly into boosting the candidates they've endorsed.
The practice is not unusual in the freewheeling world of big-money political groups, but it runs counter to the ethos of the Tea Party movement, which sprouted five years ago amid anger on the right over wasteful government spending. And it contrasts with the urgent appeals made by Tea Party groups to their base of small donors, many of whom repeatedly contribute after being promised that their money would help elect conservative politicians.
Of the $37.5 million spent so far by the PACs of six major Tea Party organizations, less than $7 million has been devoted to directly helping candidates, according to the analysis, which was based on campaign finance data provided by the Sunlight Foundation.
The dearth of election spending has left many favored Tea Party candidates exposed before a series of pivotal GOP primaries next month in Kentucky, North Carolina, Nebraska and Idaho.
Roughly half of the money — nearly $18 million — has gone to pay for fundraising and direct mail, largely provided by Washington-area firms. Meanwhile, Tea Party leaders and their families have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees, while their groups have doled out large sums for airfare, a retirement plan and even interior decorating.
The lavish spending underscores how the protest movement has gone professional, with national groups transforming themselves into multimillion-dollar organizations run by activists collecting six-figure salaries.
Three well-known groups — the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express and the Madison Project — have spent 5 percent or less of their money directly on election-related activity during this election cycle. Two other prominent Tea Party groups — the Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks — have devoted about 40 percent of their money to direct candidate support, including ads and yard signs.
On average, super PACs had spent 64 percent of their money on directly helping candidates by roughly this stage in the 2012 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission data.
Leaders of the Tea Party PACs defended how they have used their resources, saying that securing the small-dollar contributions that sustain their organizations requires investment.
"I don't have Adelson money," said Dan Backer, a campaign finance lawyer in Alexandria, Va., who is treasurer of the Tea Party Leadership Fund, referring to GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson. "I have grass-roots money. Grass-roots money is a lot harder and more expensive to raise."
Adam Brandon, executive vice president of FreedomWorks, said much of the group's super PAC money goes toward training activists to make phone calls and walk door-to-door — expenditures that are not categorized as campaign-related but that pay off politically.
Running ads "would be a complete waste of our money," he said. "Training and arming an activist is a lot harder, but it's a lot cheaper."
The manner in which the Tea Party PACs are spending their money spotlights the free-for-all realm occupied by independent political committees. Unlike nonprofits, which are governed by boards of directors, PACs can be run by a single consultant. And although candidates are prohibited under federal election law from using campaign donations for personal use, political action committees and their super PAC brethren face few limitations on how they spend their money.
"There's a big loophole," said Tony Herman, a Washington campaign finance lawyer who recently was general counsel of the Federal Election Commission. "It really is sort of the wild, wild West."
Details in their spending reports reveal how the Tea Party PACs have used that leeway.
The Tea Party Leadership Fund has doled out a quarter of a million dollars to eight consulting firms. The Madison Project socked away nearly $50,000 for a retirement plan for its staff. And the Senate Conservatives Fund paid a luxury interior design firm more than $52,000 last year to paint and decorate its townhouse office in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Still, the drive to cut wasteful spending remains the central part of the groups' messages.
The donation page on the website of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund pleads with potential donors to "make the most generous contribution possible" to help finance "the ads, the get-out-the-vote campaigns, the research and the volunteer training sessions we need to take the fight to the big-spending incumbents!"
Such appeals have helped the groups raise millions of dollars through thousands of small donations.
"I'm just so disappointed with the Republican Party and was hoping the Tea Party can have some influence," said Adele Ward, 81, of Kerrville, Texas, who wrote a check for $1,000 to the Tea Party Patriots at the end of March. "I was certainly hoping it was to further their agenda and to support the candidates."
But of the $7.4 million the Georgia-based group's super PAC has spent since the beginning of 2013, just $184,505 has gone to boost candidates, the Washington Post found. Three-quarters of the spending by the Citizens Fund — $5.5 million — has been devoted to fundraising and direct mail.
Tea Party Patriots spokesman Kevin Broughton said the super PAC, which formed in January 2013, has had to spend time "marshaling resources" and plans to be more active in races throughout the summer and fall.
Martin, the super PAC's chairwoman, oversees all its expenditures, according to Broughton, meaning she sets her own $15,000 monthly fee for strategic consulting — payments that have totaled $120,000 since July.
She also draws a salary as president of the Tea Party Patriots' nonprofit arm — getting more than $272,000 in the 2012 fiscal year, according to the group's most recent tax filing.
Her twin salaries put her on track to make more than $450,000 this year, a dramatic change in lifestyle for the Tea Party activist, who had filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and then cleaned homes for a time to bring in extra money.
Martin, through Broughton, declined to comment. But Broughton said Martin's fees could not "objectively be considered unreasonable."
"She works the equivalent of two full-time jobs," Broughton said. "When I say she probably works 90 to 100 hours a week, that's not an exaggeration."
Martin's cousin Kevin Mooneyhan also is on the payroll as a strategic consultant.
Another top Tea Party Patriots official, national finance director Richard Norman, is paid $15,000 a month to oversee fundraising for the nonprofit and super PAC. At the same time, the group's two affiliates have paid three direct-mail firms run by Norman at least $2.7 million since June 2012 to help solicit donations for the groups, according to public records.
Norman said much of the money passed through the firms to rent donor lists and pay for postage.
He acknowledged that his dual roles as a paid adviser and vendor to the Tea Party Patriots posed a potential conflict of interest. But he said he did not use his position with the group to drive business to his companies, noting that he was first contracted as a vendor in early 2010, six months before the organization asked him to come aboard as finance director.