More than 60 Tea Party leaders from across the country — originating from more than two dozen states — gathered over the weekend in Washington, D.C., to develop 2010 midterm plans at a leadership summit hosted by former Republican Rep. Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks.
Bound by a passion for smaller government, and most recently their opposition to President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul, some of the leaders are part of a well-oiled political action committee. Others merely run a Facebook page.
Tea Party activists from Florida spoke of defeating Gov. Charlie Crist, an “enemy of liberty” in his bid for the U.S. Senate. Bob Porto, an activist from Arkansas, said Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s “election year conservative will not work” in his state. He blamed her for her “60th vote” for Obama’s health-care bill.
Others praised “champions of freedom” like Republicans Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Rand Paul in Kentucky, running for Senate seats.
At the summit, FreedomWorks released their targeted list of 65 congressional races across the country. Matt Kibbe, president and chief executive of the group, said members aren’t just going after Democrats, they’re aiming to promote “better candidates” for the Republican primaries too.
They’ve labeled eight congressional races as “top-tier” targets. In Florida, they are gunning for Marco Rubio to win the Republican primary against Crist and in Nevada they want to take down Democratic Sen. Harry Reid. In Pennsylvania, Toomey is their man, as is Paul in Kentucky.
They’ve also targeted Rep. Bobby Bright in Alabama, Rep. Vic Snyder in Arkansas, Rep. Alan Grayson in Florida and Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy in Ohio — all Democratic incumbents.
“We want to see tax and spend incumbents challenged in their districts,” Kibbe said.
Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots said these grassroots activists are more likely to be talking economics than any social or cultural topics that have dominated Republican politics in the past. When she’s asked why the Tea Party groups aren’t bigger proponents of cultural issues — for example, abortion or gay marriage — she said she politely says there are other “great groups” that do that.
Adam Brandon, spokesman for FreedomWorks, concurred, saying that “to be powerful, you have to unify both fiscal and social conservatives” but that “right now where the country is,” people are concerned with economic issues such as “the deficit and the economy.”
Critics of the Tea Party groups have accused the movement of being fabricated from the top down and the weekend’s tightly organized summit begs the question: Is the Tea Party movement a legitimate grassroots group or is it — as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs once said — Astroturf?
Brandon dismissed the notion of the movement being centrally led, saying the organization just views itself “as a service center” for grassroots groups across the country.
“There’s not one but thousands of leaders. I think they look to us because we provide them a service,” he said.
While the organization has put on training events throughout its 20-year history, Brandon said this “is the first leadership summit of the Tea Party era.”
“That’s our model, people come to us and ask for help and we help them with that,” he said.
This weekend’s FreedomWorks conference included workshops for the activists on effective television techniques, the mastering of social media and even “what you can and can’t say: how to stay out of jail this year.”