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Tuesday, 07 August 2012 08:00

Tea Party Movement Planning for the Long Haul

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For many involved with the Tea Party, the days of rallies at the Mall in Washington, demonstrations in cities around the nation, donning colonial outfits, and breaking up meetings of congressional representatives is over. Instead, institutionalization is on the agenda. As Matt Kibbe, the director of FreedomWorks, one of the most powerful and well-funded Tea Party organizations, said in a recent radio interview: “We’re out-Saul Alinskying the left.”

The slogan of the television program “Survivor” -- “Outwit, Outlast, Outplay” -- is an apt description of the Tea Party movement. It has outwitted and outplayed many of its opponents on the left and its former brethren in the Republican Party, and it is lasting far beyond what many of its critics predicted. Although some of House members who owe their 2010 victories to Tea Party support are ever-so-slightly backing away from it as the November elections approach, most continue to depend heavily on the movement, including Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who defeated six-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary in May, and is facing a tough race, and Ted Cruz, whose establishment-defying victory in the GOP’s U.S. Senate primary in Texas should propel him to victory in November.

While different Tea Party groups may have different agendas and for some, winning elections is first and foremost, others see electoral victories as only one facet of a longer term strategy.

Over the past thirty years, one of the defining, and most important aspects of the rise of the conservative movement in the United States – both secular and religious -- can be summed up in four words: Attention to building infrastructure. Hundreds of millions of right wing dollars has gone into developing and supporting think tanks, public policy centers, publishing houses, media enterprises, and academic chairs.

Now, with ample funding from the Koch Brothers and others, some Tea Party organizers are taking a page from the build infrastructure handbook.

According to BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray, one of the major purposes of the late-July FreedomWorks’ FreePac gathering at American Airlines Center in Dallas was to listen “to a series of presentations on basic campaign tactics like putting up yard signs and doing phone banking.” But a lot more was at stake than simply learning “basic campaign tactics.”

FreedomWorks, one of the most important Tea Party organizations, “isn’t just focused on endorsing candidates and injecting money into their races. They’re obsessed with the training of activists,” Gray reported. “FreedomWorks, and groups like American Majority that also focus on churning out trained volunteers, have completed the transformation of the Tea Party from groups of disenchanted people gathering in each other’s living rooms — perhaps the movement’s shortest phase — to a machine that produces skilled activists and most importantly, wins races. A Tea Party upset is no longer a surprise, and amateurs are rapidly going pro.”

Brendan Steinhauser, the group’s director of federal and state campaigns, told BuzzFeed that “The way that the RNC or the Republican Party approaches activists is so different from what we do. They’re our customers, It’s bottom up. I come out and tell you whatever I want to tell you, but you’ve got to buy into this, you’ve got to find value in the training.”

There’s a new Tea Party, BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray reported: It is “staid, polished, and scripted. It sees itself as bottom-up, though the activists learn from professionals, and it’s become accustomed to success.”

In FreedomWorks’ case, institutionalization and building infrastructure may be what is guiding the creation of Freedom U., the organization’s “first attempt at competing in the think tank world.”

While FreedomWorks has a long way to go before it becomes a premiere conservative think tank, it does appear to have the Heritage Foundation in its sight. “If you think of us as a business in this market, we need to grab some of that market share,” Steinhauser told BuzzFeed. “And you notice Heritage Foundation now has a c4, they have a grassroots thing that they’re trying to do. They don’t understand what we do. They’re good guys but they’re different, they’ll never get what we do.”

“They have good information,” he added. “But now if we can start doing the think tank stuff more and more especially with Freedom U and that kind of stuff, they become less relevant and we become more relevant.”