Soon after the Republican primary elections this September, the irrepressible former mayor of Providence, R.I., Buddy Cianci, appeared as a guest on the FOX News show, Hannity. Cianci and Noelle Nikpour, a Republican strategist, were on the show to discuss the results of the elections and the affect the Tea Party movement had on the outcome. It was an often giddy affair.
Cianci, interested in the now-powerful Tea Party movement, looked at FOX News talking head Sean Hannity and asked, "Can they take donations? . . . If I wanted to make a check out to the Tea Party now, can I make one out?" Nikpour, the Republican strategist responded, “I’m sure that you can find a Tea Party organization.” Cianci wondered aloud where he might find such an organization. Nikpour replied, “I don’t know, I’m not in the Tea Party.” Cianci then answered his own question: he said that one could contribute to the Tea Party movement through “side groups.”
Having been sent to federal prison in 2002 for his role in “Operation Plunder Dome,” involving charges of racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, witness tampering, and mail fraud while mayor of Providence, Cianci might have chosen a less mysterious term than “side groups.” Nonetheless, Cianci proved to be prescient. Within days, an unnamed donor gave the Tea Party Patriots—one of those “side groups"— a donation of $1 million, more money in one lump sum than the Patriots had raised in their entire history.
In parts I and II of our Tea Party series, we discussed the existence and fundraising abilities of some of the movement’s side groups or intermediaries, usually with 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) arms, and the various Political Action Committees (PACs) with Tea Party affiliations or connections. In this piece, we examine the local and regional structure of the Tea Party movement: the national intermediaries such as the Tea Party Patriots that provide the sinews of connection among the diverse local, frequently small Tea Party groups, the grassroots groups themselves that have affiliated with this no-longer-nascent movement, and the potential emergence of these grassroots Tea Party organizations as the infrastructure of a movement that wants to do more than just influence elections.
Networking the Tea Party Movement
The intermediaries that provide technical and financial support to Tea Party organizations such as Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks also provide networking functions to various local groups that claim a Tea Party affiliation. But like any evolving movement, national organizations spring up to serve as a network to the far-flung local groups.
Robin Katcher, of the Management Assistance Group, writing in the Nonprofit Quarterly outlines four functions of movement network organizations such as the Tea Party: They “link independent organizations and activists to one another . . . through a central hub organization;” they aim toward contributing toward a “broader social movement” that is more than the sum of the parts; they are “focused on the long term . . . to advance interests that extend beyond a single-issue campaign;” and they are “porous” with “more flexible boundaries than a formal franchise structure such as the Girl Scouts or Habitat for Humanity.”
How many organizations might be networked into potential Tea Party hubs? The Tea Party Patriots claims to have some 2,800 affiliated organizations in its network—a phenomenal number of groups to have emerged in a relatively brief period of time.
Both the intermediaries (described in Part II) and the networks such as the Tea Party Patriots are multiplying, like fertile echinoderms typically do. On the intermediary side, even Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife Virginia Thomas has created a new entity called Liberty Central, whose mission is apparently “to promote education, civil discourse, and activism focused on protecting core founding principles of the United States.” What that means programmatically in terms of Liberty Central’s activities is hard to tell from its website, but the organization is a 501(c)(4) and actively promoting the candidacies of Tea Party-endorsed candidates. With Virginia Thomas at the helm, Liberty Central probably earns a place on the national intermediaries-worth-watching-list within the Tea Party movement published by the National Journal in February.
On the networks side, groups like the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express, and others continue to multiply and transform. Consider the following as illustration of how quickly the movement has grown:
Tea Party Patriots: In the February 2010 Tea Party taxonomy, the Tea Party Patriots was identified as having approximately 1,000 affiliated organizations. That number has risen to more than 2,000 in only six months. With the funding it has raised, more than doubled by the recent million dollar anonymous gift, this self-identified 501(c)(4) appears to be offering its affiliates training and technical assistance with a strong bent toward information technology. Among the Tea Party network organizations, the Patriots best utilize social networking mechanisms for communicating with members and for promoting local Tea Party events.
Tea Party Express: In contrast to the Tea Party Patriots which appears to be playing a loosely supportive, networking role for local Tea Party organizations, the Tea Party Express is the national network that mobilizes Tea Party energies for electoral purposes. According to Scott Rasmussen and Doug Schoen in Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System, the Tea Party Express began as the Our Country Deserves Better PAC created by Howard Kaloogian, a former California state legislator, to oppose the presidential campaign of Barack Obama in 2008. Its “Stop Obama” bus tour seems to be emblematic of its M.O., ginning up local political action rallies. Currently, the Express is on what appears to be its fourth national tour, with rallies planned until election day beginning in Reno, Nev. on October 18 and ending in Concord, N.H. on November 1. But the power of the Tea Party Express is not just in rallies and bus tours, but in the money the PAC puts behind electoral candidates.
According to OpenSecrets.org , the PAC has raised a little over $1.2 million in the 2008 election cycle and $5.4 million for the 2010 electoral cycle (as of August 2010). Among its current cycle donors are martial arts actor Chuck Norris and his wife Gena O’kelley, each making the $5,000 maximum contribution, and Thomas Kempner, the New York City-based hedge fund investor and scion of the Loeb financial empire. Rasmussen and Schoen, in their book, Mad as Hell, report that the Tea Party Express spent over $348,000 to help Scott Brown defeat his hapless Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, for Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat. It spent $587,000 in support of Joe Miller’s primary campaign unseating Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, and about $530,000 in support of Sharron Angle’s campaign against Harry Reid in Nevada as of August. Most recently, it spent over $250,000 vaulting Christine O’Donnell over Mike Castle in Delaware. While the local Tea Party groups develop expertise and web savvy with the help of the Tea Party Patriots, it takes money for radio and TV advertising to win electoral campaigns. This is where the Tea Party Express plays as well as any within the Tea Party ecosystem.
National Tea Party Federation: The NTP website seems largely inactive and perhaps the organization is too. Emphasizing the generation of a unified message for Tea Party organizations and activists, the Federation offered a definition of its structure that a starfish would have appreciated: “The NTPF will act in unison without a central leadership or overhead yet collaborate through a common set of principles.” Since the Federation kicked out Mark Williams of the Tea Party Express for his “colored people” letter to Abraham Lincoln this past July, the Federation has not been the substance of much news suggesting that the Federation is one part of the starfish that has withered, joining other “national” Tea Party operations that seem to have faded. Others that have seemed to vanish are Leadership Tea Party, the National Tea Party Coalition (originally the National Chicago Tea Party which sponsored gatherings in February 2009), and others.
Tea Party Nation: Founded by Judson Phillips, TPN is (or at least was) a for-profit entity, though the business model is hard to pin down. It did however convene a national gathering for Tea Partiers in February 2010 at the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, charging a hefty registration fee, using a PayPal account registered to Phillips’s wife. The event garnered Sarah Palin a six-figure speaker’s fee. TPN has a “strategic partnership” with “Tea Party Elections”, yet another of the proliferation of Tea Party organizations. Why a for-profit Tea Party Nation? The explanation offered by Phillips reveals an interesting take on the charitable sector, worth repeating at length from an article in World Net Daily, another of TPN’s “strategic partners”:
"My personal opinion is that nonprofits are among the most abused structures out there," he said. "We do not have a big office. We don't send people out on trips. We don't do anything like that. There are some nonprofits that have big offices, send people on trips, pay exorbitant salaries. Most of our folks are volunteers. We've compensated a few sales people with commissions, and that's pretty much it." Phillips said the idea of sending out letters to supporters and telling them, "The world is ending, but for $50 we can put it off for a couple of weeks," didn't sit well with him. "My vision for Tea Party Nation was to use the capitalist system to support our activities," he said. "The whole idea of begging for bucks is absolutely repugnant to me. I'm not saying people who have nonprofits and seek donations are bad people or anything like that. I'm just saying, for our group, I don't like it."
Judson Phillips may be speaking for much of the Tea Party movement when he says that “begging for bucks” and using the charitable tax structure of the Internal Revenue Code is not a big part of the Tea Party credo.
Whither the Local Nonprofit Tea Party Organization
Until the secret million-dollar donor (whose name doesn’t have to be disclosed because of new 501(c) confidentiality rules), even the Tea Party Patriots were largely funded by small individual donations. A number of Tea Party organizations, with small memberships themselves, seem to be self-funding, the activists more concerned about their political message than charitable deductibility and the filing of Form 990s with the IRS. Having a 501(c)(3) or even (c)(4) status might be important to some donors whose potential support might amount to more than out-of-pocket cash donations. According to Ned Ryun, who runs the aspirationally named American Majority, an organization that trains conservative activists about the political process, who says that potential big donors to Tea Party organizations are “a bit leery because they want to actually know these people are legitimate.”
One reason for questioning legitimacy is the increasing incidence of Tea Party organizations that have divided, with challenges over which one is the “real” Tea Party. Abilene, Texas now has two Tea Party organizations, divided over whether to support a “left-leaning” Republican. It is not uncommon, but sometimes it involves nonprofit nomenclature. In Morristown, New Jersey, two Tea Party organizations identified as “not-for-profit” groups (which might mean that they considered themselves nonprofit but hadn’t received or perhaps even applied for 501(c)(3) status) found themselves in court over which one was the real Tea Party organization authorized to hold an April 15 tax day protest.
Ultimately, the judge decided that the Morristown Tea Party Organization (MTPO) and Morristown Tea Party, a N.J. Non-Profit Corp. had equally legitimate claim to the name, at least for the April 15 event, but the case was still winding its way through the courts as of June.
Morristown Tea Party Organization v. The Morristown Tea Party Organizationreveals some fascinatingly dubious behavior. For example, MTPO (the plaintiff) apparently filed with the IRS as a 527 organization (Why not the Federal Elections Commission?), but there is no evidence that it has incorporated. Although the MTPO 527 shows no fundraising and no revenues, it made a $700 donation to the campaign of South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson (known for his “You lie!” outburst). And on MTPO’s website, there is a button for donations, but since there is allegedly no corporation and almost assuredly no 501(c)(3) status, one would have to question what kind of fundraising is going on under the name of the Tea Party in Morristown.
The press frequently describes the Tea Party organizations as nonprofits, but frequently, a search on the IRS website for many of the local Tea Party organizations yields nothing (or sometimes “tea party” organizations that really focused on tea parties (with cups and tea to sip) as opposed to Revolutionary War-inspired protests). The only organization with “Tea Party” in its name, in IRS Publication 78 was in Flagstaff, Ariz., and known for selling a publication about growing food in the mountains of the Southwest. Of the various “912” organizations that appear on Tea Party lists, the only one in Publication 78 identified as having public charity status was the San Marcos 9-12 Patriots located in Texas.
None of the “We the People” organizations were listed in Publication 78, even though on Facebook, an organization called the Arkansas We the People Tea Party Organization self-identifies as a (c)(3). No group on the IRS tax exempt list has the words “Campaign for Liberty” in its name, although an entity called the Harford Campaign for Liberty (apparently Maryland) wrote to a newspaper identifying itself as a (c)(3).
The Memphis Tea Party has posted an IRS letter assigning it an Employer Identification Number (EIN), state documents recognizing it as a nonprofit corporation in the state of Tennessee, and a professionally drafted statement that it intends to operate as a 501(c)(3) entity, but it isn’t clear that it has officially received its (c)(3) status. The Baton Rouge Tea Party posted its bylaws online saying that it might go for (c)(3) or (c)(4) status, but says it is organized as a 527. The Northwest Indiana Patriots website has a donation button at the bottom of its homepage and identifies itself as a 501(c)(3).
A search on GuideStar yields some other organizations that seem to fall within the Tea Party movement:
The Amarillo Tea Party, a 501(c)(4)
The Champaign Tea Party (IL), 501(c)(4)
We the People Are the 9-12 Association (Houston, TX), 501(c)(4)
Central Texas 9-12 Project (Cedar Park, TX), 501(c)(4) (not on our Tea Party organization listings, but a 912 group)
As much as it may appear that there is a single Tea Party organization suggesting a highly structured, intensely mobilized, maturely functioning network and movement, the reality is that the Tea Party movement is still young, many of the Tea Party organizations new, and most of them tiny both in terms of membership and cash on hand. Some of the Tea Party organizations might very well be incorporated in their states as nonprofit corporations and evaluating whether to go for 501(c)(3) status, such as the Liberty Township Tea Party in Ohio may be moving through the process of obtaining 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) status and are simply not yet counted on the IRS webpage’s Publication 78 search function. But that doesn’t stop some Tea Party advocates from describing their organizations as nonprofit, as in “public charity.” For example, as the Dallas Tea Party explained on CNN in March, it could not endorse candidates for office because it is a nonprofit Or like the unsuccessful Arizona Republican Senate candidate and former Congressman J.D. Hayworth explained to the Topeka Capital-Journal, Tea Party groups couldn’t endorse his candidacy over John McCain’s because many Tea Party groups are “registered nonprofits” and therefore prohibited from endorsing candidates.
It’s not that difficult to get a 501(c)(3) designation from the IRS. If the thousands of Tea Party organizations wanted to become (c)(3) public charities or (c)(4) social welfare organizations, it wouldn’t be that difficult. A core tenet of Tea Party beliefs is opposition to big government. The lack of charity registrations may well be a Tea Party sentiment that basically says, to heck with the IRS. The Tea Party isn’t alone in viewing the IRS as a paper tiger. In an era where "big government" has supplanted communism and fascism as the all-purpose public policy enemy, some 100 pastors just organized the third annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday, organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, endorsing political candidates for public office, a violation of the ban on electioneering by churches and by 501(c)(3) public charities. The ADF has been hoping that these protests would spark a federal government crackdown on the pastors leading to a Supreme Court challenge of the unconstitutionality of the electoral ban. The pastors, three times more than participated in the 2008 challenge, have yet to be hauled before the IRS, which disappoints them and the ADF greatly.
But maybe the lesson is different. The Tea Party could care less about a Supreme Court test of the law. If seems the Tea Party message to the IRS about donations is, “bring it on.” Several news reports talk about Tea Party organizations raising money when there doesn’t seem to be evidence on Guidestar or in Publication 78 that they have 501(c) status, for example, the Chattanooga Tea Party acknowledged to the Chattanooga Times Free Pressthat it has raised money to finance a campaign to recall the mayor. There seems to be little evidence of fear that “revenuers” will be coming after tiny Tea Party groups or those who donate to them.
The Political Party Tea Parties
The night after the primary elections, which brought Christine O’Donnell the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat in Delaware once held by Joe Biden, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, described Karl Rove’s dismissal of O’Donnell as the “death throes of the old guard.” Supported vociferously and generously by the Tea Party Express, O’Donnell defeated Mike Castle whose four-decade political career included stints in the legislature, as governor, and in Congress. The Delaware Republican party initially opposed O’Donnell and refused to endorse her. And the national Republican senatorial campaign apparatus initially said that it would put no money into her campaign.
While Rove and the Republicans rapidly turned quick 180’s in the hope that O’Donnell might defeat her very liberal Democratic opponent, there is little question that the Tea Party movement writ large exercised some electoral muscle and may see some of its political favorites elected to office come November. Like the local Tea Party groups fighting over which is real tea and not ersatz, the Tea-Party-that-isn’t-a-political-party is beginning to show some partisan cracks.
It seems all too obvious the senate candidate of the new political Tea Party of Nevada, Scott Ashjian, whose party is headed by his personal podiatrist, is one dubious character – something like the mystery Democrat Alvin Greene who won the Democratic senate primary in South Carolina. The attraction of making the Tea Party into a political party is going to be hard for some people to resist. In Florida, the Florida TEA Party has a candidate on the ballot, Peg Dunmire, running against liberal Democrat Alan Grayson. Some charge that this “TEA Party” is a creation of political tricksters meant to split the conservative Republican vote. The sentiment is probably shared by Sharron Angle’s supporters about Ashjian. The always interesting political dynamic of New Jersey has “independent Tea Party candidate” Peter DeStefano challenging Republican Jon Runyan, who has courted Tea Party voters, opposing Democratic incumbent Congressman John Adler.
In some cases, the political Tea Party parties are trumped up. TPM Muckraker has consistently reported about the Michigan Tea Party whose 23 candidates were thrown off the ballot after it became known that an Oakland County Democratic Party official had been involved in their recruitment.
Although most Republican voters now profess to support Tea Party values and politics, the siren song of a third party may be irresistible to some candidates who find the official Republicans too much like Mike Castle in Delaware or Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. On many Tea Party websites, there are complaints about RINO’s (“Republicans In Name Only”) who fail an ideological purity test. With thousands of groups linked to the national networks identified as Tea Party organizations, it is going to be difficult to prevent some from running their own candidates, not just in Republican primaries, but in general elections.
Astroturf or Grassroots