Tea Party Boot Camp

The Tea Party movement teaches itself how to elect Republicans.

Just outside the FreedomWorks conference room, prominently framed, is a full-page ad that Fox News bought in the Washington Post last year. After the Taxpayer March on Washington on Sept. 12, 2009, the Fair and Balanced network shamed its competitors with splashy photos of the event and the headline “How Did ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC and CNN Miss This Story?”

This year, reporters are determined to prove Roger Ailes wrong. They have crowded into the Tea Party group’s Washington headquarters for the second time this year to learn about a training session for local activists. Some reporters have been embedded here all weekend, sitting in on seminars like “Care and Feeding of Volunteers” and “How To Stay Out of Jail This Year.” Reporters for CBS, BBC News, Reuters, Bloomberg, USA Today, and Fox News sat patiently as FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe introduced the local organizers who are going to save America.

“There’s been a lot of talk in some wings of the press about the loss of energy in the Tea Party movement,” said Kibbe, who looks and talks like Billy Bob Thornton cleaned up for a job interview. “Talk about some of the squabbling that’s been going on. I would argue that these are not problems, but growing pains.” And with that, the reporters were off and interviewing.

“I’m a huge preacher of openness,” said Adam Brandon, the group’s spokesman, who taught a weekend seminar called “What to Expect From the Media.” “This is how you fight back from the charges of ‘Astroturf’ and racism. They get to know you, and you can ask them: Am I Astroturf? Am I a racist?”

On Monday, FreedomWorks displayed the latest version of its target list—the people its PAC would most like to defeat—the latest signs and fliers printed up for its candidates, the reading list handed out to activists (it includes Atlas Shrugged and the new manifesto by FreedomWorks Chairman Dick Armey and Kibbe, Give Me Liberty), and advice for contacting the media. (“Always try to do personal emails or be sure to use the BCC field. Never advertise which other media outlets you are trying to score a hit with.”)

This event was scheduled weeks ago. Unfortunately, the meet-and-greet coincided with Ken Vogel’s latest Politico write-up of those “growing pains” that Kibbe wanted to downplay. The story points out that FreedomWorks raised only 5 percent more in 2009 than it raised in 2008, peaking at $7.9 million.

So Brandon changed tack slightly: The article just showed that FreedomWorks is a low-budget, grass-roots, non-Astroturf operation. “We’re one of the smallest PACs in the game,” said Brandon. “We’re going to spend, at most $10 million. We don’t know those Karl Rove donors.” He leaned down and tapped a stack of Rand Paul fliers that were bound for FreedomWorks members in Kentucky. “These cost less than one cent per flier. Fractions of a cent.”

The newest member of FreedomWorks’ political operation is David Spielman, the campaign coordinator for the PAC. Spielman graduated from college just last year, and the bulk of his experience comes from a floundering campaign against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. It just happens to be experience that FreedomWorks can use. Tea Party groups in the district were active. “You’d see the same people showing up at everything,” Spielman said. “Town halls, [Americans for Prosperity] Hands Off My Health Care tours.”

The problem, Spielman said, was that those activists couldn’t be relied on to do the brutal and boring work of campaign volunteering. His job now was to inspire activists in the other 49 states to psych themselves up, spend their own money, burn their own time. (In fact, other than $100 travel vouchers and discounted hotel rooms, most of the people at this weekend’s conference paid their own way.) The gallery at the FreedomWorks offices were pledging to do that.

“I don’t know how much I’ve spent,” said Bob Koch, a retiree from Valley Forge, Pa. “Hundreds of dollars. So many hours driving to D.C.”

“I spend 60 hours a week on this,” said Anna Puig, another Pennsylvania activist. Featured in MSNBC’s documentary “The Rise of the New Right,” which so angered Tea Party activists that it inspired a boycott of MSNBC advertisers, Puig now says the documentary was a recruitment godsend. An onrush of people who saw her on TV and wanted to join her Kitchen Table Patriots group changed the way she felt about coverage from the hated “MSM.”

It’s not clear that FreedomWorks has anything at all to fear from the MSM. The 9/12 march is getting a sequel, one that the group says will be more focused on get-out-the-vote efforts, candidates, and the movement’s bottom-up “Contract From America,” a pledge for contenders to make to prove their Tea Party bona fides. Two weeks before that, FreedomWorks is co-sponsoring Glenn Beck’s own Washington mega-rally, which will co-star Sarah Palin on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The publicity is mixed, but for the Tea Party’s purposes, it really doesn’t matter. Two mega-rallies in three weeks, said Brandon, will “psych up” activists, renew their sense of purpose, and fill them with the confidence to beat the candidates opposed by FreedomWorks PAC. *

“If Beck turns a few people off,” said Brandon, “it won’t make a difference.”

“He’s not for everybody, but there’s an expression I like to use,” said Koch. “You can eat the meat and spit out the bones.”

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Correction, Aug. 10, 2010: This article originally misstated a FreedomWorks spokesman’s description of the effect of rallies on Tea Party supporters. The rallies will give activists the confidence to beat candidates FreedomWorks opposes, not to beat candidates FreedomWorks supports. (Return to the corrected sentence.)