Money and the Tea Party

From January 1, 2013, through March 31, 2014, the National Republican Senatorial Committee raised $49.6 million, but only gave $126,000.00 to candidate and other political committees. 71% of the money it spent went to its non-electioneering operations. That looks terrible. But it is not.


For example, the NRSC has been paying former employees who are now outside consultants. Those outside consultants have worked to place attack pieces against tea party groups in places like the Washington Post. They’ve written op-eds themselves to advance the NRSC’s agenda — in at least one case failing to disclose an income stream from the NRSC until caught.

Those are not funds paid to candidates or to get particular candidates elected, but the money certainly does advance their agenda.

Over the weekend the Washington Post ran a hit piece on tea party groups that makes it look like they are just in it for the money using similar FEC data to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Many of my friends who hate the tea party have passed around the story on twitter approvingly, accusing the tea party groups of committing fraud, being liars, in it for the money, etc.

One of the ironies is that some of these groups have rapidly begun to take on the habits of those they oppose. But not all of them have. Many of my friends who embraced the story approvingly did so oblivious to the fact that many of their favorite establishment groups behave the same or worse. More troubling, many embraced the story uncritically when it does not paint an accurate picture of some of the groups.

I won’t defend all the groups targeted because I do not trust some of the groups in the story. I do think there is corruption in the tea party movement. Interestingly, the groups most likely to be tainted are the ones who’ve been relying mostly on traditional, long time Republican operatives.


But not all of those in the article are bad.

The dirty little secret is that some of these tea party groups have learned from the establishment groups. Many of the establishment groups waving this Washington Post hit job around are guilty of some seemingly pretty bad practices. They give independent expenditure money to groups they have an ownership interest in, thereby getting a commission from the ads. Or, they give the money to friends who kick back the money.

The most common arrangement is the mail house and phone center. Often, a partner will leave the mail house or phone center, go work for the RNC, NRSC, NRCC, or various candidates and ensure that those groups’ business is sent back to his old employer. Once his work is done, he’ll go back to his old employer and get a tidy pay check. The self-dealings among establishment groups is staggering. They protect each other, fund each other, and work to shut out competitors from whom they can take no profit.

Ken Vogel at the Politico has done a pretty good job over the past few years shedding light on these arrangements. The Washington Post, on the other hand, is far more interested in accusing tea party groups of doing what the sources of its stories are doing. But then the Washington Post never reports on what its sources are actually doing.

But not all of what the Washington Post suggested is actually true. Some of it, with some of the groups, is vastly overstated or just plainly mischaracterized. I think the metrics used by the story are, in some cases, simply wrong. Some of the groups do not spend massive amounts of money on “electioneering,” which has a legal definition and a classification. The FEC defines “electioneering communication” this way”


An electioneering communication is any broadcast, cable or satellite communication that fulfills each of the following conditions:

  • The communication refers to a clearly identified candidate for federal office;
  • The communication is publicly distributed shortly before an election for the office that candidate is seeking; and
  • The communication is targeted to the relevant electorate (U.S. House and Senate candidates only).

If the groups engage in voter education, policy education, issue analysis, etc. they are not engaged in electioneering communication. Some of the groups listed focus on policy and issue education. Likewise, without deep pockets to float an organization, some of the groups spend a lot on emails and direct mail, neither of which is cheap.

From a personal example, I send emails on a daily basis from RedState to close to half a million people. Those emails cost in excess of $100,000.00 a year to send. But, RedState can offset the costs of those emails through advertisements. Many of these groups cannot.

In other words, it is far more complicated than what the Washington Post suggests. Just look at the NRSC data to get that. Unlike many of the establishment groups, these tea party groups do not have millionaire or billionaire donors who can write single large checks. They spend a lot to raise small dollar donations. They spend a lot of money organizing rallies, teaching volunteers how to be effective on the ground, training activists on get out the vote procedures — none of that is listed as electioneering, independent expenditures to benefit candidates, direct candidate outreach.


In fact, several of the groups listed have given more directly to candidates in the past year than the NRSC has done.

But, there are some caveats.

When I was a lawyer, I also worked as a political consultant on a number of federal, state, and local races. When I would go place ads, typically the political ad price with the local stations gave room for me to take a commission off the ad buy. When I’d send mail, the mail house factored in a price that included a commission to me. So I was getting a monthly fee from the clients to be a consultant and also getting a commission for their advertising and mail. I waived the commission in every case and got my clients’ cheaper mail, radio, and television than our competitors. I did not think it was right.

I do find it troubling when groups are getting monthly fees and also commissions. Not all the groups in the Washington Post story operate that way, but some do. I try to avoid steering people to groups that do that because I think the practice, long term, is poisonous. I have written about the many groups that, in my mind, pillaged the Romney campaign off commissions and cushy side deals and kickbacks.

I know there are sometimes legitimate reasons for doing so, but I don’t like it and try to discourage it. As I mentioned, it seems some, but not all, of the groups have been doing that. I think their best practices should be to stop doing that. But I also think those of you who think you’ve been scammed should know better. I won’t defend all the groups. Some of them I’ve been quite critical of. I do think it is important, however, to remember that virtually all the groups attacked have something in common — they’ve been working against Mitch McConnell’s re-election. Ironically, some of the groups most invested in his re-election engage in behavior far worse than anything most of these groups are accused of.


Folks like Jenn Rubin and others will embrace the Washington Post story as proof that the tea party is corrupt. The NRSC will circulate to discourage donors to these groups. The truth is far more complicated and, in fact, many of very the groups embracing this story, if not orchestrating it, are often doing exactly the same or worse.

Disclosure: I continue to proudly give money to the Senate Conservatives Fund and Madison Project, both of which I support without reservation or hesitation. The Madison Project is going to be a sponsor at this year’s RedState Gathering too. I’m also excited to announce that FreedomWorks will be a sponsor of this year’s RedState Gathering. Last year, Tea Party Patriots sponsored the event. I consider Jenny Beth Martin and Richard Norman to be friends and honest brokers in the movement.


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