Un-sweet tea: Gingrich, Bachmann divide a movement in South Carolina

Allen Olson remembers when he began his formal political education. He was in his late 40s and Congress had just passed the Troubled Asset Relief Program — the TARP bank bailouts. Olson looked his 5-year-old son in the eyes and cursed the debt with which Congress was saddling the little boy’s generation.

So Olson founded the Columbia TEA Party — TEA for Taxed Enough Already — and started raising hell. By April 2010 he had organized a Tax Day rally that drew 1,000 conservative activists to the State House steps amid a sea of yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.

A year and a half later, though, he resigned his position as chairman and abandoned Michele Bachmann, the presumptive tea-party-magnet presidential candidate. Instead Olson is a county campaign chairman for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, someone he understands is a long-time Washington creature, a confirmed influence peddler and a politician who supported TARP.

Olson also remembers the moment he quit on Bachmann. It was Labor Day and he was sitting near the front row at the American Principles Project Palmetto Freedom Forum moderated by Jim DeMint in this early primary state. A moderator had just asked Bachmann to define the Fourteenth Amendment. As far as he was concerned she flubbed the question.

“That was one gaffe too many,” says Olson, a self-employed carpenter and hard-core Gingrich volunteer.

“I switched my vote right then and there,” he told The Daily Caller, “and I started looking at Newt. I know he’s got tons and tons of baggage, but I was looking at someone who was bringing real solutions.”

Bare-knuckle infighting

The onslaught from other tea partiers didn’t begin raining down on Olson when he stepped down as chairman from his tea party group in September and endorsed Gingrich. It came after the former speaker began to take off in the polls.

South Carolina voters have accurately predicted the eventual Republican nominee since they chose Ronald Reagan in 1980. A recent Winthrop University poll has Gingrich leading with 38 percent of the South Carolina vote, and Romney in second with 22 percent. And in one of the most heavily-influenced tea party states in the nation, campaigns are waging a bloodsport for the endorsements of movement leaders across a political landscape known for mud-pit politics and bare-knuckle bouts.

As Olson can attest, it hasn’t been pretty.

“I have been called ‘RINO,’ ‘establishment,’ ‘clueless,’ ‘idiot,’ the list goes on,” he told TheDC in a recent email about the retribution he has faced for backing Gingrich. “These statements have come directly from members I have worked with from the beginning.”

Olson said he hoped the media would steer clear of heavily covering the discord among tea party activists in the state-wide movement he has helped build for the past two years. But lately the animosity has been hard to ignore.

A spokesman for Bachmann’s South Carolina effort, Wesley Donehue, is openly accusing the Gingrich campaign of paying off tea party members for their public support.

“Bachmann is trying to grow an organic base of supporters, and Newt Gingrich is trying to buy off tea party groups,” Donehue told the Columbia Free-Times on Nov. 21. “Newt Gingrich knows the only way he can get the tea party vote is to buy it.”

Bachmann’s South Carolina tea party co-chair followed up in a recent press statement.

“It’s ludicrous to think that the tea party would line up behind Newt Gingrich, a true ‘Washington insider,’” wrote Kelly Payne, a high school civics teacher who ran for state education superintendent in 2010. Payne also noted Gingrich’s support for the federal government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and his appearance with Nancy Pelosi in a TV ad about climate change.

“It’s pretty obvious why he has to throw around some of that cash to pick up tea party support,” she wrote.

Olson says his own financial relationship with the Gingrich campaign is “absolutely zero.” He added that there were a few tea party members on Gingrich’s state payroll here, but said each of them has practical campaign experience.