National Tea Party Groups Want On GOP Bandwagon But Face Chilly Reception

WASHINGTON -- After years of insurgency, national Tea Party groups joined with the Republican establishment in Wisconsin to defeat the Democrats' attempt to recall GOP Gov. Scott Walker.

It was a taste of things to come, one of the group's leaders told The Huffington Post.

"What Wisconsin showed is when the Tea Party and Republican Party line up on the same side we're a powerful force, and we play our own roles," said Brendan Steinhauser, the campaigns director at FreedomWorks, a Washington-based grassroots organizing group aligned with the Tea Party.

"Phase 1 is beating the Republicans. Phase 2 is beating the Democrats," Steinhauser said. "It's remarkably moving in the direction of unity toward November."

But now that the upstarts are rowing in the same direction as the party regulars, what is that relationship like? Do these national Tea Party groups –- and the volunteer networks of ground troops they have built over the past few years -- get any respect from the GOP?

Several interviews with operatives and activists indicate that it remains an arms-length relationship, with the GOP's political professionals often viewing the national Tea Party groups with suspicion and annoyance.

After the Wisconsin recall, groups like FreedomWorks and the Tea Party-affiliated Americans for Prosperity were quick to promote their efforts, as were the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association.

But judging purely by the numbers, the RNC and governors association had far a larger footprint in Wisconsin than any Tea Party group.

The RNC set up 23 field offices and made 4.5 million voter contacts over roughly four months, with a majority of those being volunteer phone calls to targeted voters.

Rick Wiley, the RNC's political director, explained the significance of the 4.5 million statistic.

"If you also look at nationally what we did in 2010, we had victory centers in all 50 states, and we targeted, I want to say it was 125 congressional races around the country that we had an ID and a turnout program going in," Wiley said in an interview. "And of those 125 victory centers that we had, we made about 45 million volunteer voter contacts in 2010, which is the most the RNC has ever made."

The 2010 effort was seven to eight months long, Wiley said. So the Wisconsin mobilization amounted to essentially 10 percent of the national voter contact effort, in one state, in half the time.

"Huge number," the bald-headed and goateed Wiley said.

While a spokeswoman said the RNC spent only "hundreds of thousands" of dollars in Wisconsin, the Republican governors group spent $9 million, running eight TV ads and sending 3.3 million pieces of mail with targeted robo-call follow-up to select voters.

By comparison, FreedomWorks hit 50,000 doors, Steinhauser said. Americans for Prosperity said it made 120,000 "direct contacts" over five months, with more than half of those being physical visits to voters' homes. And American Majority Action, a grassroots group based in Virginia, made a little more than 40,000 voter contacts, with about two-thirds being phone calls.

Americans for Prosperity is, of course, in a league of its own. While it is in some respects a Tea Party group that works with grassroots activists, it is also one of the main vehicles for the hundreds of millions of dollars that billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch plan to funnel into the 2012 election for TV ads and get out the vote operations.

Just this week, Americans for Prosperity announced a $5.5 million TV ad campaign hitting President Obama for his comment about the private sector being "fine."

Wiley was diplomatic about the Tea Party groups.

"Anything that conservative groups are doing on the ground or through mail or on television that targets conservative voters -- and swing voters for that matter -- and gets them to turn out, that is a good thing for us," Wiley told HuffPost.

But when asked how the RNC efforts dovetailed with outside groups' organizing in Wisconsin, Wiley said it was not something he had focused on. "We don't think about it," he said.

Said Wiley: "Some of the groups that have operatives that have kind of come through the system here understand what parties are trying to do and they understand that they have a certain role out there."

"And then there are other rogue groups out there, quite frankly, that are probably doing stuff for their own personal gain, or their own group's gain," Wiley added.

Wiley didn't name names. But when asked which groups "got it," Wiley mentioned American Crossroads, a political group started by Republican operative Karl Rove, and the American Action Network, started by former Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota.

Neither group was involved in Wisconsin prior to the recall.

Any disparaging sentiments that Wiley and other GOP professionals might have is directed not at pure grassroots groups at the local level but more toward the unique niche that groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity occupy. FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity are neither pure grassroots or expressly political outfits. But they are a little more of the latter than the former. And they, along with groups like Club for Growth and others, have been a constant thorn in the side of the GOP in primary elections going back to 2010.

"There is a respect for the money they can bring to bear on Republican primaries, but there is also an annoyance that they don't spend more energy trying to defeat Democrats and instead spend a lot of their time attacking Republicans," said John Feehery, a former House Republican leadership aide.

Feehery pointed out that most Tea Party groups are generally only effective in statewide races when the state itself is very conservative or in congressional races when the district leans heavily to the right.

"They can be a force in primaries, but it's not like they're an organized force. It's more like an organized mob," Feehery said. "It's viewed through the prism of 'these guys don't know what the hell they're talking about.'"

It is inevitable that party loyalists whose sole job it is to win elections would look askance at activists who challenge them during the primaries but then come and join their team in a general election.

Drew Ryun, the president of American Majority Action, said "there is not a comraderie" between groups like his and the party establishment. American Majority Action is allied with the Tea Party.

"I think the Republican Party establishment fears a conservative movement that is politically robust, which means that any time the conservative movement pulls off effective grassroots ground games … their kinds of folks can start winning primaries," Ryun said.

But there is widespread rejection by GOP operatives and political veterans of the idea that these groups speak for the real Tea Party, which is generally hyperlocal and tends to shirk any kind of oversight or authority.

"Anyone who claims to 'represent the Tea Party' or any broad swath of voters associated with it is simply disingenuous. Tea Party voters don't listen to a central body or person to make their decisions," said one Republican super PAC operative in Washington who asked not to be named in order to talk frankly about Washington-based groups.

To the extent that FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity become successful in mobilizing their base to increase voter turnout, these groups are also competition for the RNC and other party professionals who specialize in winning elections. However, if the Wisconsin numbers are any indication, the RNC in particular attracted far more volunteer grassroots energy than any of the self-proclaimed Tea Party groups.

"The Tea Party has jumped the shark," said Feehery. "In many ways the Republican Party has moved more conservative and adopted a lot of the same messages as the Tea Party, and the Tea Party, because it was so disorganized and had so many spokesman who were kind of wacky, it lost favor."

But Steinhauser said that groups like FreedomWorks think of their job as boosting "turnout at the margins" and expect many if not most activists to plug in directly to the GOP's bigger and better-funded organizational arms. "If we can affect the outcome by a few percentage points, we are doing our job," he said.

FreedomWorks' real value added, Steinhauser said, is in recruiting and training a new class of activists.

"One thing we try to do is invest in the human capital for the long term," he said. "Then when it's election time, you have this well-oiled machine that can lead [get out the vote efforts] and the costs are much lower for us and them."

Nonetheless, Michael Dennehy, a New Hampshire-based political consultant, said resentment against grassroots groups has in some corners turned to grudging respect.

"While the establishment political professionals may have initially viewed Tea Party groups and activists as amateurs, I think they have learned to respect and even appreciate their passion for change," Dennehy wrote in an email. "Many Tea Party groups have had success in primary elections and it is difficult to ignore success in the political business. In fact, one ignores success at their own peril."

Tea Party Casualties

CORRECTIONS: This story has been updated to reflect that the American Action Network and American Crossroads are not affiliated with the Tea Party. An earlier version of this post had indicated that the two groups are affiliated with the Tea Party, but they are not. This report has also been updated to state that the American Action Network was started by former Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota not Karl Rove as originally noted.