The Ryun brothers want to infuse new Tea Party blood into the political system.
So the veteran politicos behind the conservative American Majority organization are putting their energy into training novice Tea Party candidates running for a school board, city council or state senate seat in your town.
While other Tea Party-affiliated groups have zeroed in on specifically helping candidates win seats inside the U.S. Capitol, Drew and Ned Ryun are more focused on developing a farm team at the local and state level who one day could run for Congress.
“I make the argument that’s where political careers begin,” Ned Ryun explained in an interview. “Today’s county commissioner, tomorrow’s congressman. You’ve got to feed the system.”
The brothers’ organization launched in 2008 in a small office in Purcellville, Va., though American Majority has roots dating back to 2005, when the Ryuns drew up a document laying out plans to create a “systematic, year-in year-out, 365-days-a-year approach to identifying and training people to be a national farm team of conservative leaders.”
Ned Ryun is the founder and president of American Majority, registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) political training institute. Drew Ryun is the president of the 501(c)(4) arm that can engage in more politically tinged activities.
“We had noticed that a lot of times that it came to open-seat elections at the federal level, or when it came time to potentially have a good conservative run for and win a federal seat, we had no farm team,” Drew Ryun explained. “A lot of people would be looking around and going, “Well, where’s our farm team? Who’s going to be that person, that proven conservative, that can step up to the plate and actually, legitimately run for and win higher office?’”
The timing of starting such a group was perfect, they maintain, as it was just a few months later in the spring of 2009 when the Tea Party movement burst onto the country’s political scene.
“The thing that’s been cool that we’ve been able to do at American Majority is taking people that came out for the first time in 2009 and really empowering them and saying, ‘OK, move past the protesting to what really will cause change,’ and helping them really organize into a real political machine,” Ned Ryun said.
The group has done about 395 trainings in 40 different states since then.
The brothers maintain that they have a unique “perspective on life” because their father — former Kansas Republican Rep. Jim Ryun — was in the House for 10 years. Also, Drew Ryun was a deputy director at the Republican National Committee, and Ned Ryun was a writer in the George W. Bush White House.
“We’ve had an interesting experience of having seen the inside of D.C. and what takes place, and then also we’ve done lots of grassroots work prior to this,” Ned said. “So it’s kind of a unique perspective where we can say, ‘This is how it actually works. This is what happens. This is the system you’re confronting.’”
But sometimes their backgrounds make some of the establishment-wary grassroots activists skeptical of them, Ned Ryun said
“It has been a little funny – there have been very isolated incidents where people are like, ‘You must be D.C. insiders or something. We’ve looked at your resume and you’re a White House writer.’ It’s like, ‘Really?’ Anybody that knows us that has ever worked with us knows that the Ryans – my dad included – it’s principle first, party second,” Ned Ryun said.
Drew Ryun chimed in: “It’s principle first, party fourth.”
Last month, they announced the formation of their New Leaders project, an effort of a coalition of local Tea Party activists and American Majority who plan to recruit “credible” candidates for office in 2012.
They strongly make the case that their organization — which employs about 30 people — is different from other likeminded groups, such as FreedomWorks or Americans for Prosperity, who have played large roles in organizing Tea Party activists. Some of those groups put a high premium on bolstering their organization’s membership by soliciting phone and e-mail lists from activists.
“We’re not just saying, ‘Come be a part of our grassroots organization.’ We don’t want them to join American Majority,” Ned said. “We want to help them, we want to empower them.”
Drew Ryun, who actually works from Ft. Worth, elaborated: “We don’t want to become a brick-and-mortar institution inside of Washington, D.C.”
Speaking of other groups, Drew Ryun elaborated: “They come to D.C. and set up shop in D.C. And I think the irony is that we as a conservative movement believe in federalism and devolving power, yet these conservative groups come to D.C. and camp out there. I want the exact opposite of that,” Drew said.
American Majority operates a program called “Running for Office 101,” which includes lessons on everything from putting together a campaign plan, fundraising and media relations. “It’s all the basic nuts and bolts that you need to be successful in winning politically,” Ned said.
Drew Ryun elaborated: “We’ll let them give a stump speech and we’ll just drill them, trying to take them down rabbit trails. And then we’ll take that film, usually two or three minutes long, and we’ll critique it for them.”
“Some of these people are so new to the process, they have never written a stump speech,” he said.
The brothers already boast of success stories. Drew mentions a 28-year-old housewife in Arkansas who had never run for office before going through the American Majority training. “She took on a 16-year incumbent on the school board there in Arkansas and she beat him. The cool thing is, she’d never run for office before.”
They also bragged that in Oklahoma, the group identified and trained 27 city council candidates, and 17 ran and won. Of those, 16 had never run for office before.
“The whole idea is to infuse the process with new blood, new leadership,” Ned Ryun said, “and give them the tools to be successful – not only to be successful at that level of government, but to build a farm team for higher office.”