Rift at Tea Party Group Reveals Questions about Movement’s Direction

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Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images

FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey, center, and FreedomWorks CEO Matt Kibbe, right share a laugh at a Tea Party rally in Philadelphia, Oct. 12, 2010.

The messy split this week between Dick Armey and the Tea Party organization FreedomWorks may be a harbinger of things to come. Armey, the former majority leader of the House GOP, left the conservative group with an $8 million payout and a line of questions in his wake. Among them: what prompted the apparently acrimonious rift? And is the movement FreedomWorks helped foment — and which it rode to relevance and riches in return — headed for a similar breakup?

Armey resigned as chairman of FreedomWorks with a scorched-earth letter dated Nov. 30 and first reported on Dec. 3 by Mother Jones. The missive was addressed to FreedomWorks President and CEO Matt Kibbe. Tension between the two leaders was the driving force behind Armey’s exit, according to a report in Politicowhich cites sources within the organization saying that Armey believed Kibbe had used FreedomWorks resources to promote a book Kibbe released this summer, and from which he personally profited. Officially, Armey left after a dispute over the group’s direction. But few in Washington think that’s the whole story, and several employees have followed him out the door. Multiple employees at FreedomWorks did not respond to interview requests from TIME.

The Associated Press reports the bill for Armey’s $8 million package will be footed by FreedomWorks board member Richard Stephenson, a prominent Republican fundraiser. The terms, according to the AP, call for Armey, 72, to receive annual $400,000 payments for 20 years. That means the former congressman and lobbyist, who helped craft the GOP’s “Contract with America” in the mid-1990s, will be raking in mid-six-figure consulting fees into his 90s. “That’s a pretty unusual arrangement,” says Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21. Particularly for a group that considers fiscal responsibility an organizing principle.

(MORE: A Tea Party Test Case)

FreedomWorks is one of two offshoots of the Koch-backed conservative group Citizens for a Sound Economy (the other, Americans for Prosperity, still gets funding from the industrialist duo) and it has been a titan of the Tea Party movement since its inception. Headquartered in airy offices a few blocks from the Capitol, it has flourished under the Obama Administration by positioned itself as an organization that can train and educate the conservative grassroots through its nonprofit and social-welfare wings, as well as bankroll candidates who embody its ideology through its political action committees. While it is officially a nonpartisan organization, spending on behalf of Republicans or against Democrats comprised some $18 million of the $19.5 million the group’s super PAC spent in the last campaign cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Much of that money was put toward electing Tea Party Republicans to the House and Senate, with varying degrees of success.

But many conservatives believe FreedomWorks has reaped much more from its relationship with the Tea Party than it has given back. The outfit’s membership and revenues have soared as the army of grassroots activists opposed to Obama emerged, with its fundraising reportedly spiking to $40 million this year. Several sources in the conservative movement questioned what the group had to show for its outlays in 2012 except efforts at self-promotion. “Where the hell did that $40 million go?” asks one conservative strategist aligned with the Tea Party. “With that kind of money, their presence in the field was anemic.”

FreedomWorks’ high profile, the strategist argues, hampers the impact of other conservative organizations, who are competing for a finite pool of donors and dollars. Ineffective national Tea Party groups “might have sucked the movement dry,” says the strategist. “This fall the tea party movement was tired, it was drained…It’s certainly not what it was in 2010. It was almost, in some ways, like the Tea Party never happened.”

(MORE: The Tea Party’s New Model: Experienced Candidates Magnifying Movement’s Influence)

The Tea Party isn’t over; it has ushered into Congress a brigade of arch-conservatives who will keep its ideology alive in the Capitol. But the days when the Republican Establishment were grateful for the grassroots movement’s energy seem finished. Many GOP strategists blame the Tea Party for yanking Republican candidates out of the mainstream and toward the political fringe during Obama’s first term. The brand is in tatters, prompting Republicans who proudly ran under its banner in 2010 to edge away this fall. The freshman class of House Tea Partyers is back in Congress en masse, but Republican leaders no longer tolerate their truculence; this week House Speaker John Boehner booted several congressmen from committee posts for their refusal to toe the party line. And the patron saint of Senate Tea Partyers, South Carolina’s Jim DeMint, announced Thursday he would be quitting the chamber in January for a new gig at a conservative think tank.

Even among Tea Party activists, there is genuine concern about the movement’s future. Part of the problem, activists say, is that national groups like FreedomWorks have vacuumed up money and publicity as local groups wither. “They’re chasing the movement rather than leading it, and to me that embodies most of the DC-based organizations,” says Chris Littleton of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, a network of Buckeye State Tea Party groups.

Littleton recalls how, when his organization was at the forefront of a heated collective-bargaining referendum in Ohio in 2011, FreedomWorks attempted to capitalize on the issue’s momentum and publicity by planning a press conference on the steps of the statehouse, where it gave Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich a “legislative entrepreneur award.” But the confab, Littleton says, was originally slated for a day the legislature wasn’t in session, and Kasich didn’t sponsor the bill FreedomWorks planned to celebrate. “Their purpose was to get publicity for themselves,” Littleton says, and their success curtailed the ability of groups on the ground to fundraise on their own behalf.

The strange paradox, he notes, is that Republican groups who rail against a centralized federal government have nonetheless assembled a centralized organizational structure, with much of the power entrusted to a handful of Washington-based groups. This hamstrung the party on Election Day, when the Romney campaign’s disastrous get-out-the-vote portal, Project ORCA, flowed through a central hub in Boston, leaving volunteers in the field helpless when the program went awry. Meanwhile the political left, Littleton says, “uses a free-market model in their political organizing,” empowering local activists to run networks in their own local communities. He laughs ruefully. “It’s the ultimate irony.”

MORE: The Conservative Identity Crisis

109 comments
hombresruin
hombresruin

What are they arguing about? which bleach to use on their white hoods?

MarcusXL
MarcusXL

This article is terribly written. Come on, people.

MorganSheridan
MorganSheridan

The money went to make some folks even richer... always was an astroturf organization and not grass roots.

teatruther
teatruther

Some where a nazi is proud.  The left is so much like Hitler it's scary. Look at all the proof here . 

valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

MONEY......MONEY.....MONEY......WHETHER DEMOCRAT OR REPUBLICAN........MONEY.....MONEY...MONEY....THINGS HAVE NOT CHANGED SINCE THE DAYS OF THE PHAROH !!!

VALENTINE

fitty_three
fitty_three

Funny how baggers are middle class, too, or at least they claim.

It may be that as the GOP insane desperately tries to preserve the perks of the privileged, and pass the shovel to us, their rank and file begin to see the light:

The GOP doesn't even give a shirt about them, either!

notsacredh
notsacredh

"But the days when the Republican Establishment were grateful for the grassroots movement’s energy seem finished. Many GOP strategists blame the Tea Party for yanking Republican candidates out of the mainstream and toward the political fringe during Obama’s first term.".The Tea Party has made candidates unelectable on a national level outside of the south. They've cost the republicans at least 4 senate seats over the last two elections.. They may as well be funded by the democrats. I hope they work their magic at least through 2016. That would give a democratic president 8 years to shape the Supreme Court for a generation. Thanks baggers.

notsacredh
notsacredh

OT, but it wouldn't surprise me if Roberts casts the deciding vote in favor of same sex marriage. He pissed the right off big time by upholding the ACA and went for a legacy vote instead. I think this will be the same. Roberts sees which way the wind is blowing and which way public opinion is heading. I have doubts that he'll be afraid to not toe the party line and vote against it. If he is in fact looking to the future, you don't need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows..http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/07/us/court-marriage/index.html?hpt=po_c1

fitty_three
fitty_three

I see McConnell did a Senatorial flop.

That'll b $4,000 plus two free throws....

outsider
outsider

as far as i am concenred, the splitting up of the group couldnt happen to nicer people.

maybe the other teabagger groups will break up also

MrObvious
MrObvious

2012 shows that the tea party 'phenomena' was nothing more then a Media creation. 

BobJan
BobJan

8 million. It's always about the money. Always.

davidd
davidd

Three surgeons are discussing who makes the best patients to operate on. The first surgeon said, "Electricians are the best, everything inside is color coded.". The second surgeon said, "No librarians are, everything inside them is in alphabetical order.". The third surgeon said, "You're all wrong. Teabaggers are the easiest to operate on. There are no guts, no heart, no balls, no brains and no spine plus, the head and the ass are interchangeable."

tommyudo
tommyudo

Guys like Armey and Kibbe are nothing more than political hucksters. Armey has cut himself a sweet long term deal. It won't be too long before Kibbe does the same. These guys are no different than the financial advisors and home contractors who fleece the gullible elderly to part with their  retirement dough. The Tea Party was a  GOP construct for the 2010 election,. It will soon wither away and morph into something else that will prove to be irrelevant to the concerns of the country's changing demographics. Guys like Armey, Kibbe, Ralph Reed, Norquist, et al. understand the old American adage - "There is a sucker born every minute."

ThomasHall
ThomasHall

Without massive outside funding, via the activist justices of the GOP-dominated SCOTUS whose Citizens United corruption of democracy allowed unlimited campaign spending from the rich, rich corporatiosn, and rich special interests, the baggy populist movement would have quickly died. The outside funding allowed big GOP gains in 2010 (with 25-28% of the 43% of eligible voters bothering to show up) which resulted in a gridlocked Congress and hurt rather than helped America and also allowed the GOP to retain control over the House in 2012 despite the losses nationally.

jmac
jmac

"Isn't that the ultimate irony."  Considering the Republican party's hypocrisy on just about every issue they tackle - immigration (fence them out but make sure they're here to do our dirty work), abortion (make it illegal but don't fund contraceptives to the poor), etc.,  the irony is that they lasted as long as they did.   It has taken a number of years for the counter to rise up to fight Fox, and that counter came not from the MSM but from Colbert, Stewart, late night and the rise of MSNBC.  Thank you, Rachel Maddow.  ,   

fitty_three
fitty_three

Where are the Teabillies going? 

That a way            V  V  V

TomPryor
TomPryor

@MorganSheridan It's just more way that the GOP figured out how to siphon money directly from the middle class to the 1%.

Tea Partiers are the biggest suckers in America today.

notsacredh
notsacredh

Pnnto, maybe Boehner is finally trying to reel them in or else cut the line and let them head for deep water on their own.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@sacredh They are as shocked as I am that Boehner finally showed some stones as a "Speaker". 

hombresruin
hombresruin

YOu have no idea of the political spectrum and what left and right are,go read some political discourse and then come back and debate,but dont regurgitate the rantings of fox news,now go away and let the adults talk

TomPryor
TomPryor

@teatruther I think you're confused, citizen.  It's the American rightwing that has much more in common with European Fascism than the American left. You seem to be deeply misinformed.

notsacredh
notsacredh

The Tea Party is getting the same kind of negative connotation that "liberal" used to have. I love it.

fitty_three
fitty_three

@sacredh  

I don't see how the Supreme court can avoid it.  Banning same sex marriage is discriminatory and since the government cannot support religion,it can't be banned to "preserve" those institutions either.

Ohiolib
Ohiolib

@sacredh Kennedy is also entirely possible. The stare decises set in Loving V Virginia states that marriage is a basic civil human right. Kennedy and Roberts may not like gays much, but there is a precedent that could force gay marriage through. I wouldn't bet on this, but it's entirely possible. We also need to consider that if Roberts OR Kennedy defects from the asylum, gay marriage gets upheld. If they both move to logic, then it's over; gays finally get treated the same as everyone else. 

jmac
jmac

@sacredh The Supremes need to keep up.  Even the Mormon Church has accepted that people don't choose to be gay.  This is the church that's put millions into initiatives across the country fighting gay rights.  When even the Mormon Church can see the light, it's time to Move On -  Alito, Scalia, and Thomas.  (I jest - it's not gonna happen for the Three Gohmerts).   

Sue_N
Sue_N

@sacredh Roberts needs to stop looking over his shoulder at the right and do what's best for the people and future of this nation.

It's not like the baggers can primary him.

bobell
bobell

@sacredh If he does want to go that way, he'll try to get Kennedy to go along.  A 6-3 vote looks a lot better than 5-4.

TyPollard
TyPollard

@sacredh 

Also gay friendly is the corporatist position. They can't afford to be branded as bigot.

Ivy_B
Ivy_B

@davidd You may also have achieved the max number of Livefyre likes. I tried to like yours from my little land of seven hours ahead and I couldn't. However, well done, sir.

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

@tommyudo I love talking to T-Baggers who think they are a "grass-roots organization"  They don't know who their leaders are nor do they know where their funding comes from.  Pawns.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@jmac 

I always cringe at the intellectual simplicity that conservatives showcase when they talk about "the liberal media".  Major media outlets like CNN, TIME, ABC, CBS, etc. try very hard to remain as neutral as possible in the news they report.  In doing so they have go out of their way to create false equivalencies between the Democrats and the Republicans, and despite this people that are brainwashed by Fox News and the like still believe that all of the above are presenting with some enormous liberal bias.  The only real liberal based news (which coincidentally is also generally the most honest news) outlets like those you listed could be defined as such, and even then they're not flat out lying in their publications like so much of the ultra-conservative media and their respective foundations do.

Even then, as a liberal I will usually still go out of my way to give links posted here from conservative sources to look for the tells or flaws in the articles and point them out to the people that post them (and they always do exist).  Most right wing posters here will not even read articles from the likes of HuffPo, MSNBC, Mother Jones, or Salon.  What does that say about the distinction between our two bases?

Sue_N
Sue_N

@53_3 Sadly, they're not going fast enough. They're still mucking up the works.

fitty_three
fitty_three

*Thanks to who invented that term.  I forgot who it was!

notsacredh
notsacredh

Pnnto, it does surprise me just a little bit that Boehner is finally sporting a pair. It does make me wonder if John is pulling a Roberts and thinking of leagcy instead of just caving in to the TP demands. Meeting with Obama privately and not claiming that Obama was making ridiculous demands immediately after the meeting is a very encouraing sign. Both Boehner's and Obama's people issued the exact same statement after the meeting. It looks like the senate republican members that have said they'll ignore Norquist's pledge are throwing the ball squarely into Boehner's court. Boehner probably doesn't want the blame for going over the fiscal cliff laid at his feet because he couldn't deliver enough votes to prevent it.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@sacredh Your link does bring up something interesting, Boehner is doing this BEFORE the next House is seated. That is, before the next vote for Speaker. 

Personally I don't have a dog in that fight but if Thirsty can slap back his TPers and still get the Speaker position that might be encouraging for the republic. 

TyPollard
TyPollard

@sacredh 

Every time "liberal" is used by the Tea-billies it bring new credibility to the term. They have done more to rehabilitate the word than anyone on the left. I

f the insane klown posse is agin' it, it's probably worth looking into.

fitty_three
fitty_three

@Sue_N

They're hard to kill.  They've evolved in the most unsavory habitats, you know.

outsider
outsider

speaking of which - where are the flying cars?