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

  • Share
  • Read Later
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