Hey, Media! Stop Uncritically Hyping "Tea Party" PACs.

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 13 2014 3:54 PM

Hey, Media! Stop Uncritically Hyping "Tea Party" PACs.

One of my pet peeves in daily political journalism is the elevation of any group with "Tea Party" in the name. Put on a tricorner hat, announce a brunch meeting of the [Your Town Here] Tea Party Alliance, and presto—you are covered as a challenge to the Republican order.

CBS News is up with a sterling example of the problem, a story headlined "Tea Party group mobilizes to oust House Speaker John Boehner." Tea Party! Mobilization! You can imagine the gathering of armies and the heated town hall meetings. 

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Go on and imagine it, because there's almost no story here.

“John Boehner has declared war on conservatives demanding lower taxes and limited government," said Rusty Humphries, a talk radio host and spokesman for the Tea Party Leadership Fund's Primary Boehner campaign. “Today we declare war on him.  We intend to send a message to his fellow 'Republicans In Name Only' that such ideologically bankrupt leadership must come to an end."
The group, which bills itself as the nation’s largest tea party political action committee, announced a $25,000 ad buy targeting Boehner’s record and vowed to recruit a conservative primary challenger to take the fight directly to the speaker. The group also announced a petition drive to collect 1 million signatures in support of its effort.

A $25,000 ad buy isn't tiny, certainly, but what is the Tea Party Leadership Fund? It's not exactly grassroots; in FEC filings, its address is an office on Pennsylvania Avenue. Its treasurer, custodian and records, and main contact is Dan Backer, a conservative attorney who represented Alabama tycon Shaun McCutcheon in a lawsuit to overturn campaign donation limits. Last year, when the Fund made news, it was for a campaign to win the same sort of tax privacy that the Socialist Party does, on the grounds that the IRS had been trying to nail the Tea Party.

Its giving history? In the 2012 cycle, its first, the Fund raised $1.17 million and gave only $52,000 to candidates. Most of its political spending, $127,100, was devoted to an ad against Barack Obama that made no apparent impact. About $26,000 more was spent on ads for two conservatives who lost.

My point is that this is a pretty small-scale operation in reach, large-scale in its ability to vacuum up money. Oh—and get attention when it wants to build its donor list with a five-figure buy.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.