Tea Party continues to grow

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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FreedomWorks is adding 500 to 2,000 members a day to its network of like-minded Tea Party activists. Those activists will provide an army of volunteers for a presidential candidate who supports their small-government goals, say FreedomWorks’ staffers.

Despite its expanding network, the D.C.-based libertarian group isn’t claiming to be a leader of the Tea party movement. The movement has no national leadership, but “I think we have credibility with a majority of Tea Partiers,” said FreedomWorks CEO Matt Kibbe.

These days, Tea Party activists are focused on state and local issues, such as school choice legislation in Pennsylvania, Kibbe said. They’re not looking to mount another massive D.C. march, such as the 9/12 protest in 2009, in part because the movement has already proved its influence during the 2010 election, he said.

(FreedomWorks: Tea Party may stay home if Romney nominated)

Instead of a being protest movement of outsiders, he said, the Tea Party is evolving to become a get-out–the-vote movement that can greatly help like-minded House, Senate and presidential candidates in 2012, he said. Established politicians have little choice but to recognize the movement’s influence, he said, noting that Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch recently visited a Tea Party event in D.C.

In 2010, Hatch’s former colleague, Sen. Bob Bennett, lost the Republican nomination and his Senate seat to a candidate that had the support of Tea Party members. Hatch is likely to face a primary challenge before the 2012 election.

In 2008, Republican candidate John McCain lost the race, partly because small-government activists did not turn out to vote. This time around, said Kibbe, “they’re looking for someone who shares their values and can win.”

FreedomWorks has three parallel networks: the group’s e-mail list, its Facebook page and its new FreedomConnector website, which allows members to find like-minded people in their city or county.

The Facebook page, said FreedomWorks staffer Adam Brandon, already has 750,000 ‘likes’ and is adding about 250 per day, and the FreedomConnector has more than 100,000 members and is adding roughly 150 per day. On a good day, such as when the group’s leaders are attending state rallies, the group can sign-up as many as 15,000 new people, he said.

The movement’s members are a rough match for the nation’s demographics, although it has a larger proportion of women leaders and a lower proportion of African-Americans and Hispanics, Kibbe said. “It is a weakness we need to work on,” he said, adding that the movement already has some notable non-white leaders and that members are loath to organize themselves by ethnic or racial categories.

One of the more prominent Latino Tea Party activists is Tito Muñoz, who immigrated from Colombia. He owns a Virginia construction company and was a prominent supporter of Sen. John McCain during the 2008 presidential race. He’s now running for a state senate seat in Virginia. Munoz, said Brandon, “will win the state senate seat against all odds.”