COLUMBIA, S.C. — Organizers of a tea party convention scheduled to convene next month in Myrtle Beach are fending off accusations that they called for “armed guards” with concealed weapons permits to staff the event. A senior leader of one tea party group in the Palmetto State raised concern about heat-packing patriots amid a flurry of email backlash after supporters of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann announced their intention to hold a straw poll at the event to promote their candidate.
The resulting back-and-forth has raised tensions in a movement that has made national news for its behind-the-scenes internecine warfare as candidates battle for tea party support in the critical early primary state. No Republican since 1980 has gone on to win the party’s nomination without first prevailing in South Carolina.
The Myrtle Beach Tea Party Convention is set for the Jan. 15–16 weekend, just five days before the critical first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary. The event, which organizers expect to draw hundreds of activists, tea partiers and members of other conservative organizations, is not open to the public.
In an email sent to South Carolina tea partiers on Dec. 19, Carolina Patriots vice chair Daniel Cochran penned a lengthy takedown of the convention’s organizers, the Myrtle Beach Tea Party. In his email Cochran accused Joe Dugan, the group’s chairman, of coordinating a group of armed activists to keep order during the event.
“You do know that Joe put out the call to all folks with Concealed Weapons [permits] to volunteer as armed guards at this convention right? ‘In case of any trouble…’” Cochran wrote. “[T]his document has been pulled from Joe’s [G]oogle documents about the convention. We do know of about four or five folks that replied they would be happy to volunteer and then the document went ‘poof.’”
Addressing Bachmann supporters specifically, Cochran ended his message warning, “You might want to advise your candidate that hand guns will be present at the event as far as we know.”
Bachmann chairs the Tea Party Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. Concern for her safety stemmed from a Dec. 18 email to tea party supporters from her South Carolina spokesman Wesley Donehue, announcing that Bachmann “is the first presidential candidate to commit to speaking at the convention.”
“During the convention, there will be a straw poll and Congresswoman Bachmann will need your support,” Donehue continued in his email. “In order to gain access and vote in the straw poll, you must have your name listed as being with an organized TEA Party group.”
But Dugan, the convention organizer, replied that the idea of a straw poll was a non-starter.
“I have no way of knowing who [Donehue] sent this out to,” he emailed in reply, “but I never mentioned a straw poll for our convention and have no intention of holding one.”
Dugan also warned that the tea party leaders in attendance are responsible for the actions of their groups’ members. Disturbances, he added, will not be tolerated.
“Through the media, the rest of the nation and the world will be watching and we will not leave any ‘trash on the grass’ for them to write about.”
In an interview with The Daily Caller, Cochran repeated his emailed allegation that Dugan called for armed security to police the Myrtle Beach event.
“Does Bachmann’s campaign know there’s going to be a bunch of guys with handguns around? That was my point,” he said, referring to his written accusation.
In that same email, Cochran challenged the legitimacy of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party’s claim that it enjoys federal nonprofit charity status. The organization is registered as a nonprofit in South Carolina, but the Internal Revenue Service has no record supporting the group’s contentions in 2009 that it was a 501(c)3 charity, and in 2010 that it was a 501(c)4 charity.
Cochran also raised questions about the group’s candidate endorsement process. It recently endorsed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but Cochran said Gingrich’s name was the only one on the ballot.
Dugan immediately fired back.
“This is totally outrageous!” he emailed the group that received Cochran’s accusatory message. “I am appalled that this kind of vitriol would be written about any Tea Party group in the state.”
He added that Cochran would not be allowed to attend the convention.
In his own email, however, Dugan seemed to confirm at least part of Cochran’s complaint.
“Anyone attempting to create a disturbance at this convention,” he wrote, “will be removed by our security force.”
Reached for comment, Dugan did not deny that his organization initially called for tea partiers with concealed-carry permits to attend. But he wouldn’t concede that he expected individual attendees to arrive with firearms.
“I have a concealed weapons permit,” Dugan told TheDC. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to bring a gun.”
He did confirm that security forces will be present.
“Well, that’s true,” Dugan said. “We’re not putting up with any disturbances.”
“We’re paying for the place, and we’ve got a right to ask people to leave if they start getting out of hand,” he said, adding that he doesn’t expect that they will. Dugan also worried aloud that the concern over armed tea partiers in Myrtle Beach “is getting entirely blown out of proportion.”
Cochran, however, told TheDC that Myrtle Beach Tea Party members have retaliated against him for raising his concerns.
“Since I sent that out I’ve had death threats [and people] threatening my job,” he said in a phone interview. “This thing has been blown out of proportion.”
In one email, a man wrote to Cochran, “If someone had concocted such a pack of lies about my friends 30 years ago, I would have sought him out and beat him to a bloody pulp … without any concern for the consequences.”
In another email dated Dec. 20, Myrtle Beach Tea Party member Gerri McDaniel threatened to alert Cochran’s employer that he might be using Facebook during work hours. McDaniel is a staffer on Newt Gingrich’s campaign.
“And last but not lease [sic] Daniel you know I do have National Media contacting me daily if this email you sent … gets out,” her email reads in part. “Also I am sending a copy to my dear friend Attorney General Alan Wilson and see where I need to go from here to stop your rantings online.”
The entire episode has left Donehue, Bachmann’s South Carolina spokesman, shaking his head.
“It’s hard to tell whether this is funny or scary,” he said, after receiving the emails from Cochran and Dugan.
Donehue said he has considered bringing a video camera to the convention so he can film a Jersey Shore-style reality show about conservatives in Myrtle Beach.
“The whole thing,” he mused, “has turned into a circus with a bunch of clowns carrying guns.”