After emerging out of nowhere over the summer as a seemingly potent and growing political force, the tea party movement has become embroiled in internal feuding over philosophy, strategy and money and is at risk of losing its momentum.
The grass-roots activists driving the movement have become increasingly divided on such core questions as whether to focus their efforts on shaping policy debates or elections, work on a local, regional, state or national level or closely align themselves with the Republican Party, POLITICO found in interviews with tea party organizers in Washington and across the country.
Many of these differences date to the movement’s beginnings last winter in an outpouring of anger about the huge increases in government spending enacted by President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress. But they were overshadowed by the initial explosion of activism that culminated during the congressional town hall meetings in August.
Now the disagreements and the sense of frustration they have engendered could diminish the movement’s potential influence in state and national politics.
“These groups don’t play as well together as they should,” said Kevin Jackson, a St. Louis-based conservative author and activist who has spoken at dozens of tea party-type rallies and is traveling across the South with a convoy sponsored by the national Tea Party Patriots group.
“They’re fractured at the organization level, I think mainly because there are a lot of people who have not had managerial experience who all of a sudden are thrust into the limelight and become intoxicated with it. And when a potential rift comes up, instead of handling it and maybe agreeing to disagree, they splinter and go off on their own.”
The movement is composed of hundreds of independent local groups, many of which are incorporated as nonprofits and have localized names referencing the tea parties, 9/12 or We the People.
Many of their members also belong to national conservative groups, including FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity and Grassfire, while the local groups often affiliate formally or informally with loose-knit umbrella organizations, including the Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Nation.
The organizational chaos — combined with a widening apathy at the edges of the movement — has produced a growing consensus among local, state and national tea party leaders that for the movement to evolve from the loose conglomeration of fired-up activists who mobilized this summer to register their dissatisfaction with Obama and Congress at town hall protests and marches across the country into a sustainable bloc with the power to shape the GOP and swing elections, it will require the emergence of a national leader, group or structure.
Ned Ryun, president of American Majority, a nonprofit that has conducted organizer-training sessions for many tea party activists, said “the next three to six months” are going to be critical in determining “what’s going to happen with the tea party movement. Are they going to be a bunch of fingers, or are they going to come together to be a fist?”
Yet, while some tout a planned National Tea Party Convention in February (at which former Alaska governor and tea party darling Sarah Palin is listed as the keynote speaker) as a potentially unifying moment and others point to online coordination efforts, there is deep disagreement about what any national organization would look like and who would lead it.
FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, Grassfire, Americans for Limited Government and a host of other groups have helped organize various efforts capitalizing on the energy behind the tea parties, including providing training, online war rooms that help generate phone calls and ready-to-distribute canvassing literature.
But the groups have also jockeyed — mostly behind the scenes — to take credit for leadership of the movement, which — depending on who’s doing the telling — took its name either as an homage to the 1773 Boston tax revolt that played a major role in sparking the American Revolution or from an acronym standing for “taxed enough already.”
Some activists see the turmoil within the movement and the internal clashes as simply a part of maturing.
“Some of these groups may burn out, but this is part of this entrepreneurial process and the competition is good,” said Adam Brandon, vice president of communications for FreedomWorks, a nonprofit chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas.
The group has facilitated some of the efforts demonstrating the potential power of the movement. Those have included the confrontations that erupted at congressional town halls this summer, the massive Sept. 12 “Taxpayer March on Washington” as well as another Washington rally this month and support for conservative third-party candidate Doug Hoffman, who narrowly lost a special congressional election in upstate New York this month despite strong support from many tea party groups and leaders.
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Brandon stressed that the strength of the tea party movement is in its grass-roots nature and that FreedomWorks’s goal is to help facilitate the movement, not to control it.
“One thing that’s clear is that anyone who says they own the tea party movement is going to get run over because no one owns the movement,” he said.
Brandon acknowledged the “rivalries and turf battles” now gripping parts of the movement but said “that’s normal because people have different ideas about what they want. That’s what’s happening now, and it’s sometimes a painful process.”
Those fights have been waged over issues that go to the heart of the movement’s purpose and strategy as well as more mundane rivalries and personal feuds.
In Myrtle Beach, S.C., disputes within the local tea party about how much to engage in partisan politics and whether board members were profiting from contracts to print paraphernalia emblazoned with the group’s logo prompted the treasurer to resign and join with defectors from a North Carolina We the People group to form a new organization.
“There’s a lot of fighting, and everyone wants to be in charge, and that’s why you have so many splinter groups,” said ex-treasurer Janet Spencer, who charged her adversaries within the tea party with saying “derogatory things about me that were very unprofessional.”
She said her new group, called Patriotic Voices of America/Carolina Patriots, counts about 100 members and will not coordinate with the Myrtle Beach Tea Party, whose treasurer, David Ognek, said the friction is “just group dynamics.”
In Texas, a handful of thriving tea party groups severed their ties from the national Tea Party Patriots group after it ousted, then sued a founding board member who had affiliated with a rival group called the Tea Party Express.
“Our fight is in Congress and not with each other or with these other groups,” said Toby Marie Walker, who was the Texas state coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots and also co-founded the Waco, Texas, tea party.
This Waco group recently drew an estimated 4,000 people to a rally it organized with the Tea Party Express, which travels the country hosting rallies. The month before, it had pulled out of the Tea Party Patriots after the Patriots group accused the Tea Party Express of steering the movement away from nonpartisan issue-based advocacy, embracing extremist rhetoric and raising questions about the Express’s finances.
The Patriots’ attack and lawsuit worried the Waco group’s board, Walker said, because “if you align yourself with someone who is going to be that malicious, then how do we know they won’t turn on us?”
Other local tea party groups, though, cast their lots with the Patriots, heeding the group’s call to disassociate with the Tea Party Express.
In Granbury, Texas, local tea party organizer Josh Sullivan says he believes the movement’s effectiveness is being compromised by extremism.“You have some interesting folks in the Tea Party movement — some of them I can support, but some of them are kind of out there and radical, and I don’t want to associate myself with them,” he said. In Northern Colorado, meanwhile, a handful of active 9/12 groups — named for the Glenn Beck-encouraged effort to stage the Sept. 12 Washington march — are unhappy with the state 9/12 group’s aversion to fundraising and with its focus on national issues and have discussed forming their own rival statewide group.
“People are beginning to become a little bit de-energized — they’re starting to feel like they’re fighting a losing battle, because we send a lot of letters into Washington, D.C., and things like that, and people are saying they’re not listening,” said Brian Britton, who heads the Greeley, Colo., 9/12 group.
That fear is echoed by Glenn Galls, a Hot Springs, Ark., tea party organizer frustrated with the focus of Arkansas’s state-level tea party groups on national races and issues such as cap and trade and health care.
“If the tea party movement is going to continue to thrive and to grow and to have influence,” he said, “it must start coming together and coalescing and finding its purpose in life, because if it doesn’t, the excitement will fade like it does from anything else.”