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.”
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.
Bachmann makes her case
On Dec. 4 in front of a sparse crowd at the Florence Barnes & Noble, Bachmann spoke at a book-signing event in the heart of South Carolina tobacco country. She emphasized her chairmanship of the Tea Party Caucus in the U.S. Congress.
“The tea party stands for three solid principles,” Bachmann said. “The first one is that we’re taxed enough already; the second is that government shouldn’t take more money than what it takes in; and the third is that government should act within the confines of the Constitution. That’s a pretty mainstream point of view and people see in me the best person who will represent that.”
At the event, Donehue and other Bachmann aides were apoplectic that South Carolina tea partiers are assisting in the Gingrich surge.
“There’s a lot of areas that would give any conservative pause when it comes to Newt Gingrich’s record,” Bachmann communications director Alice Stewart told The Daily Caller. “And it goes back many years.”
Stewart pointed to Gingrich’s support for TARP and individual health care mandates, and criticized him for benefiting from the largesse of the government-supported mortgage lender Freddie Mac.
“He says he wasn’t a lobbyist, but sure he was. … Tea party members don’t like the inside baseball politics and the lobbying and the influence peddling that goes on in Washington,” Stewart said. “And Newt Gingrich, he’s the poster child of influence peddling in Washington.”
Splitting the right
Olson alleges that rhetoric like Stewart’s is dividing the tea party movement and turning conservatives against each other.
With businessman Herman Cain out of the running, the Gingrich and Bachmann campaigns are actively courting tea party insiders and maneuvering for their public endorsements.
Dianne Belsom is president of the Laurens County Tea Party, a group of about 80 hardcore members in the conservative Upstate near Bob Jones University. She has had to beat back charges that her group was influenced by Gingrich green.
On Dec. 8 her group held a meeting of about 50 After a presentation from the vetting committee and a brief discussion, the attendees voted to endorse Gingrich. It was nearly unanimous.
Belsom says it was Gingrich’s experience, his ability to articulate the conservative agenda, his knowledge of history and his chances of besting President Barack Obama in a debate that members mentioned most.
“The decision our vetting committee came to was based on our own research and our own conversations,” Belsom said. “There’s no tea party person I know of that went for him because they were paid to.”
She blames Donehue, the Bachmann spokesman, for instigating talk of pay-to-say endorsements. “It’s completely false for our tea party,” she told TheDC, “and there’s no other tea party that I know of that is being bought.”
In early November, Bachmann held a private meeting in West Columbia exclusively for tea party leaders “and the men and women who have been working in the TEA Party movement,” according to a copy of the invitation. The event was not open to media.
The meeting was more like a stump speech, according to Lexington Tea Party founder Cory Norris, who attended.
“She came in, said her thing, and left,” he says.
Making the sale
For Norris, it’s Bachmann’s lack of foreign policy experience and her support of the Patriot Act that turns him off. He doesn’t know of any tea partiers who have received money for their endorsements.
It’s Gingrich’s one-on-one personal appeal, he says, that has left many conservatives star-struck and ready to endorse the former House Speaker. Still, he wishes the process weren’t so superficial — and he believes Bachmann just isn’t as good at playing the game.
Gingrich, he said, “is even good enough at the political lap dances to be able to hide the needle tracks that are his liberal past in the process. … It’s sad that so many would sell themselves out to the GOP establishment for such a small price.”
So far, Gingrich has clearly made more sales. On Nov. 28, Bachmann’s campaign released a list of 37 members of South Carolina tea party groups who have come out publicly to support her. Gingrich then released his own list of 40 names. And Gingrich’s paid campaign operation — the largest in the state — is bursting with tea party titles.
Gingrich’s South Carolina surge has continued, following Saturday night’s ABC News debate in Des Moines, Iowa. Two days later he picked up the endorsement of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party with 75 percent of the vote, according to a campaign press email.
In an NBC News/Marist poll, he leads with 42 percent of likely primary voters in the Palmetto State, nearly double the support of Mitt Romney who is in second place with 23 percent in the poll.
No other candidate had double digits. Although the campaigns of Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum are likely to siphon off some fragmented tea party support, they haven’t been as outwardly aggressive about the process. That leaves Gingrich and Bachmann to duke it out.
Olson believes he knows which candidate will eventually score a knockout.
“Newt is the only one proposing real solutions,” he told TheDC. Every candidate wants to repeal the president’s health care reform law or the Dodd-Frank bill, he adds, but Gingrich is offering specifics.
“Every candidate has baggage,” Olson says. “Since I don’t think Jesus Christ will be on the ballot, I am voting for the one who I think can best turn this country around.”