How the Texas Tea Party Became Nothing More Than an Effort to Take People’s Money

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March 5 2014 2:20 PM

Texas Buck-rakers

How the Texas Tea Party became nothing more than an effort to take people’s money.

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Stockman was a uniquely incompetent scammer, but he didn’t have the field to himself. The danger of “scoreboard” politics, of choosing big targets, is that you’ll likely lose. The upside is that you’ll definitely raise money. The Stockman race was a cruder, less ethical version of the Tea Party Leadership Fund’s promise to “Defeat Boehner.” Sure, the speaker of the House is even safer than Cornyn, but the Tea Party Leadership Fund has raised millions and kicked back most of it to consultants.

And the “Defeat Boehner” campaign is mirrored by FreedomWorks, the Washington-based Tea Party group that’s running its own “Fire the Speaker” campaign. The first time most national reporters heard of the Pierson-Sessions race was when FreedomWorks brought her to Washington, and FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe called her “one of the best activists in Texas.”

According to the Federal Election Commission’s records of independent expenditure, FreedomWorks spent no money on Pierson’s race. In the last week, the Conservative Campaign Committee spent around $16,000. The Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund spent around $5,000, having endorsed Pierson officially on Monday—the day before the primary. But FreedomWorks spent elsewhere. I asked what the group had done in Texas’s primaries and got no response.

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If you’d been following FreedomWorks’s claims about Texas, this didn’t make much sense. The group had bet heavily on Cruz’s 2012 primary campaign, sending its then-director of campaigns, Brendan Steinhauser, down to Texas to organize events.

In July 2012, FreedomWorks brought 14,000 conservative activists to Dallas for a “FreePAC” rally in support of Cruz. In June, after former Obama campaign strategists started a voter registration program called Battleground Texas, FreedomWorks announced an agenda named for the flag of the Battle of Gonzales: “Come and Take It.” Politico obtained the full plan, which asked for $7.95 million to blanket Texas in ads and full-time canvassers.

The number was eye-popping—and fanciful. A few months after the “Come and Take It” announcement, FreedomWorks revealed that it had raised $40 million in 2012. BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray reported that less than $10 million had come in through 2013. FreedomWorks didn’t deny this. Its spokeswoman cautioned that the group worked on a two-year fundraising cycle.

But nothing suggested, then or now, that “Come and Take It” had evolved beyond a pitch to possible donors. It certainly couldn’t save Katrina Pierson. And it couldn’t tap Steinhauser, the organizer who’d worked in Texas on the Cruz project. In July, he was hired to run Cornyn’s re-election bid. Texas reporters matter-of-factly mentioned Steinhauser’s 2012 work. FreedomWorks took the unusual step of demanding a correction, telling the press that “as a 501 (c3) and (c4) employee, Brendan Steinhauser was not involved in the decision to endorse Ted Cruz early in the Texas Republican primary.”

That was a pointless distraction. Cornyn’s campaign wasn’t hurt in the slightest. His victory, and Sessions’ victory, will end up convincing plenty of reporters that the GOP establishment has finally conquered the right. The outside groups that overpromised in Texas will raise money by promising to take better scalps in other races. The racket only stops when the checks stop.