Tea Parties Emerge as Revenue Stream
Tapping into the
deep reservoir of anger on the right at President Barack Obama and
Congress has turned out to be a financial boon to a diverse collection
of tea party-affiliated political groups and candidates soliciting
donations and raising money from the sale of T-shirts, books and
The tea party brand has proved to be a potent source of revenue for new
for-profit companies funding - among other things - an upcoming
convention keynoted by Sarah Palin, for established national non-profit
groups soliciting small donations and for political action committees
and long-shot candidates raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to
try to overcome sometimes long electoral odds.
And it's spawned a host of competing initiatives to capitalize on the
willingness of conservative activists to put their money where their
politics are, even during tough economic times.
A combination of newly engaged small donors and already engaged ones
redirecting their contributions are the main source of the money,
according to movement organizers in Washington and across the country,
who predict that if tea party donors unite behind a group or cluster of
groups, they could emerge as a force as well-financed as the liberal
But the fundraising efforts have also prompted grumbling about the
monetization of a local grass-roots movement and raised concerns about
whether the money is being used to advance the cause of the activists
who burst onto the national scene last summer with marches and town hall protests around the country.
The debate over fundraising reflects the tensions of a movement
whose internal stresses have raised concerns on the right about its
ability to become a factor in the 2010 elections. Already, there are
charges and countercharges that the money that has been raised has not
been used effectively to advance the small-government, limited taxation
ideals at the heart of the tea party movement.
"There are a lot of questions about money and where all the money has
gone," said Erick Erickson, editor of the influential conservative blog
RedState.com, which has emerged as both chronicler of - and guide for -
the tea party movement.
Conservative bloggers and activists have at times accused some tea
party organizers of poor budgeting, wasting money on flashy initiatives
like cross-country bus tours that critics say don't do much to advance
the cause, or - worse - using cash raised from activists to pad their
groups' coffers or their own wallets.
"The biggest problem I have is that there are a bunch of hacks out
there," said Erickson, who has been traveling the country advising
conservative groups and big donors on strategies for feeding and
channeling the grass-roots energy behind the tea party movement. He
said "multimillion-dollar donors" have largely refrained from
supporting many of the tea party-affiliated groups because they're
waiting for signs of which will be able to effectively advance the
In the meantime, though, small-dollar donations from the movement's
grass-roots activists have emerged as a significant funding stream that
could be key for the tea party to advance from merely staging protests
to shaping elections, according to Eric Odom, an early tea party
organizer who has founded a handful of tea party-related groups.
"If you take the million people who turned out on April 15 [at Tax Day
Tea Parties around the country], and you can get even half of those to
contribute $100, that's pretty significant and that's what we're
working on," said Odom, who helped organize the April rallies.
This month, Odom unveiled a new political action committee called
Liberty First PAC to raise money from tea party activists to fund
congressional challengers embodying the movement's principles. Though
the PAC has only raised $15,000, he says it's received pledges for
$100,000. "Our next $400,000 is within reach, and after that, it should
take care of itself," he predicted.
Odom conceded, though, that a for-profit company he co-owns called
American Liberty Alliance burned through the $30,000 it raised - from
donors and by selling Web ads - to fund a monthlong candidate-backing
cross-country bus tour before it could pay a couple of the people who
helped pull it off, though he says the payments weren't guaranteed.
California-based political action committee Our Country Deserves Better
PAC-TeaPartyExpress.org has raised big bucks - and hackles - for its
own pair of bus tours on the so-called Tea Party Express, whose riders
participated in tea party rallies in towns along its cross-country
The PAC sought $250,000 in donations
from grass-roots activists to fund a bus tour that started in San Diego
in October and ended this month in Orlando. The PAC, which is planning
another pair of tours in 2010, reported to the Federal Election
Commission that from the beginning of the year through the end of June
(the most recent figures available), it raised $585,000 and paid
$235,000 to PAC officials, the consulting firm that runs the PAC, and
the activists who have traveled on the Express.
The PAC's coordinator, Joe Wierzbicki, said its goal " is to support
conservative candidates for Congress in 2010 and a conservative
presidential candidate in 2012." A good portion of its money went to
produce ads supporting Republican campaigns, including Jim Tedisco's narrow loss in the special election for a western New York congressional seat, and opposing Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
In all, the PAC this year spent $327,000 on independent expenditures through the end
In two closely watched battles between Republican moderates and
conservative challengers, small donors have played a major role. Doug
Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate in a New York special
congressional election, received most of the more than $265,000 he raised for his unsuccessful campaign from outside his upstate New York district. And Marco Rubio, who is trailing Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in a battle for the GOP nomination.html for the Senate, raised $315,000 of the $1 million in contributions he reported in the last quarter from small, out-of-state donations.
Wierzbicki's PAC has come under heavy fire from activists who have
charged it alternately with trying to co-opt the movement for partisan political purposes and "using the name tea party to put money in his own pockets."
Tea Party Nation, a for-profit company that runs a social networking
website for activists and is now selling tickets - at $560 a pop - to
what it's billing as the "First National Tea Party Convention," has
also come under fire from activists. According to the organization's
website, the planned three-day convention in February is "aimed at
bringing the Tea Party Movement leaders together from around the nation
for the purpose of networking and supporting the movements' multiple
organizations principal goal
The registration fee doesn't include lodging at Nashville's sprawling
Gaylord Opryland Hotel, where the convention is being held. But it does
include access to scheduled speeches by tea party heroes Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Palin, whose speaking fee (reported to be in the six figures) was paid by convention organizers.
"If this were a perfect world, we wouldn't charge anybody, but to put
on an event like this, there are expenses that have to be covered,"
said Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips. He explained that his
group is hoping to turn a profit from the event so that it can "funnel
money back into conservative causes" through a 527 group it plans to
set up to get involved in campaigns.
"This is the source of a lot of disagreement within the tea party
movement, where a lot of people say money is a bad thing. But the
simple fact of the matter is that you are not going to get candidates
elected without money," he said.
"The tea party movement is a grass-roots movement; it's not a
business," countered Anthony Shreeve, an East Tennessee local tea party
organizer who resigned from the convention's steering committee after a
disagreement over finances. "Most tea party activists won't be there
because they can't afford it."
Tea Party Nation's website sells ads such as the one for a book called
"Tea Party Revival: The Conscience of a Conservative Reborn," which
bills itself as "an essential guide" to the movement, and also hawks Tee-shirts emblazoned with "Got Tea?"
Tea Party Express's online store site bears only a message explaining
that merchandise "was backordered due to the tremendous amount of
support. Not to worry. ... you will be receiving your items soon." And
a conservative Georgia-based company called Patriot Depot has offered
up a wide array of movement paraphernalia,
including a T.E.A. ("Taxed Enough Already") yard sign ($19.95) and
personalized tea bags it promised to send to Congress before the April
15 tax deadline.
Then there are the more established - and well-funded -
Washington-based conservative groups that have gotten most of their
cash from big donors, but in recent months, as they've helped
facilitate and organize aspects of the tea party movement, have quietly
competed to add grass-roots activists to their member and donor rolls.
Many grass-roots party activists, whose local groups by and large are
financed by $5 and $10 donations collected in hats passed in living
rooms and coffee shops weekly around the country, resent the
fundraising solicitations from national groups, said Glenn Gallas, a
Hot Springs, Ark., tea party organizer.
"You just become another name on their e-mail list to ask for money from," he said.
Nonetheless, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity and Americans for
Limited Government - among the Washington groups most involved in
offering their organizational services to local Tea Party activists -
all say they've seen major spikes in membership and small donations.
It's impossible to gauge how much of those groups' funding comes from
the gras-sroots versus huge individual or corporate donations, since
the groups aren't subject to mandatory disclosure rules. But what is
known of their finances - for example, that most of Americans for
Limited Government's $4 million budget comes from large donors
including New York real estate magnate Howard Rich, while Americans for
Prosperity is funded in part by interests affiliated with its founder
manufacturing tycoon David Koch - have yielded charges from the left
that the groups are drumming up fake grass-roots' opposition to
Adam Brandon, spokesman for FreedomWorks, a non-profit
chaired by former House Republican Leader Dick Armey, said the group is
seeing "just a huge number (of grass-roots tea party activists) giving"
since it got involved in the movement. It has helped facilitate some of
the seminal events in the movement, including the massive Sept. 12 "Taxpayer March on Washington."
But another Washington group that co-sponsored that march and other tea
party activities, the National Taxpayers Union, has not seen its donor
rolls blossom during its involvement in the movement, according to
spokesman Pete Sepp.
"What we were trying to do in activating these folks was first to get
them involved and then, hopefully, seek their financial support," said
Sepp. "One would think ‘gosh you're crazy for not hitting them up for
money right away,' but we really wanted to see how we could cultivate
grass-roots contacts for the long term to establish an ongoing presence
in their own communities, rather than suddenly put these people on
donor rolls and hit them up mercilessly," he said.
"A lot of these folks are not in a great financial position to begin
with. It's one of the reasons that they're out protesting is because
they're feeling the pain," he said, adding that too much of an emphasis
on raising money "could potentially harm the movement, because it's a
premature national initiative that doesn't have the support of the
majority of we the people."