The pitch came at the end of Rand Paul’s conference call with 2,000 potential supporters:
Go online to donate to Paul, the Kentucky Republican Senate candidate who is courting Tea Party activists. Or press seven to give $25 to FreedomWorks, the advocacy organization headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey that sponsored the July 13 call, said Matt Kibbe, the group’s president.
Even as candidates such as Paul tout their anti- establishment credentials, much of their financial clout comes from veteran Republicans such as Armey, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and onetime U.S. Representative Chris Chocola, who aim to reshape their party.
“This movement is a hostile takeover of the Republican Party,” Kibbe said of the Tea Party, a loose collection of activists who favor lower taxes, government spending cuts and the repeal of a law overhauling U.S. health care.
FreedomWorks, which also advocates less government and lower taxes, hosted some 50 Tea Party activists in Washington last weekend to train them in organizing, such as going door-to- door to help candidates challenging established Republicans in this year’s elections. Many activists are also vying for positions on local Republican Party committees.
“Starting a third party is not the answer,” said Ana Puig, co-leader of the Kitchen Table Patriots, a group in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that joined in the training. “We have to work with the party that is most closely aligned with us.”
Nod From Palin
Republicans such as Armey, 70, DeMint, 58, and Palin, 46, help put challengers on the Tea Party’s radar screen through e- mails, social-networking sites and conference calls. Armey’s group says it has 576,000 e-mail addresses and 230,000 Facebook friends.
Palin, the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president, has amassed her own Facebook army of almost 2 million followers and is endorsing congressional candidates around the country. A nod from Palin for Joe Miller, who is taking on Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski in the Aug. 24 Republican primary, gave him higher name recognition among Tea Party supporters, activists say.
Talk radio and blogs tout those candidates and make them “the ones the small donors get excited about,” said Joe Wierzbicki, coordinator of the Tea Party Express, whose parent group is the largest Tea Party political action committee.
Besides giving directly to the campaigns, some supporters donate to groups including the antitax Club for Growth, based in Washington and headed by former Indiana Republican Representative Chocola, and DeMint’s PAC, which forward the cash to the candidates.
‘Handiwork’ of Professionals
DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund raised $75,380 in June for Ken Buck, a county district attorney in Colorado, and spent $136,853 on his behalf through July 26. That helped Buck defeat former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton this week in the state’s Republican U.S. Senate primary.
“The Tea Party movement is the handiwork of professional politicians rather than a ‘spontaneous’ grassroots effort,” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. “Inevitably, when a political party loses the White House, a battle rages over who will control its future.”
At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in February, Armey’s group endorsed Utah lawyer Mike Lee for the Senate over Robert Bennett, a Republican seeking his fourth term. The Club for Growth spent more than $180,000 against the incumbent. DeMint’s PAC raised $59,334 for Lee in June, contributed $5,000 to his campaign and spent $133,458 on his behalf through July 26. Lee won the June primary.
Much of that money comes from small donations. One-third of the $2.1 million raised by DeMint’s PAC and almost half the $182,428 collected by FreedomWorks from January through June this year were from donations of less than $200, U.S. Federal Election Commission data show.
In Kentucky, Paul, 47, raised $3.5 million through June 30, with $1.6 million, or 46 percent, in contributions of less than $200. His Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Jack Conway, raised $3.4 million, with 7 percent, $234,536, from donations under $200.
Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, the likely Republican U.S. Senate candidate, collected $11.2 million through June, with $4.1 million, 37 percent, in small donations. Rubio was boosted by Tea Party support, prompting a rival for the party’s Senate nomination, Governor Charlie Crist, to run as an independent. Crist took in 2 percent of his $12 million from small donors.
‘More Like Them’
Tea Party supporters were key to former state lawmaker Sharron Angle’s win in the June 8 Nevada Republican Senate primary. The Tea Party Express spent more than $500,000 on behalf of Angle, who is facing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in November.
Angle reported raising $3.5 million, with $2.1 million in donations of less than $200, through June 30. Reid raised $19.2 million, with $1.3 million, 7 percent, from small donors.
“The Tea Party movement fits neatly within the right wing of the Republican Party,” said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California in San Diego. People like Armey and DeMint see it “as a vehicle for making the Republican Party more like them.”
As for the July 13 conference call for Paul, FreedomWorks said it collected more than $10,000. Paul’s campaign manager Jesse Benton called it “a strong online fundraising day.”