When it comes to organization and money, the Tea Party movement has until now looked like something put together by the Mad Hatter, marked more by squabbling and chaos than political discipline.
But the launching of three new Tea Party political action committees, and the expansion of a fourth, suggest that changes are afoot. Organizers are planning candidate training sessions, get-out-the-vote drives, endorsements, campaign donations and independent expenditures. Some envision a Tea Party Caucus in the House.
Tea party activists remain fractious and fractured, and some are funneling money through irregular channels. But they are beginning to embrace the tried-and-true political tools that could give their movement heft and staying power.
The movement remains nebulous, but Tea Party organizers say there's plenty of room for growth.
"People recognize that in order to, in fact, change the government, you have to be part of the process," said Memphis Tea Party Chairman Mark Skoda, president of a new Tea Party PAC dubbed Ensuring Liberty. "You can't just stand around outside with your signs making your voice heard, and not electing people."
Skoda's new PAC and an accompanying 501(c)4 advocacy group by the same name have a $10 million fundraising target for 2010, he said. Skoda was the spokesman for the recent controversial Tea Party convention in Nashville, but said his PAC is separate from that event and from its organizer, a for-profit group dubbed Tea Party Nation.
The Ensuring Liberty PAC has already endorsed two conservative House hopefuls -- Tennessee Republicans Charlotte Bergmann and George Flinn -- and plans to back a full slate of 15 to 20 candidates. Skoda envisions a congressional Tea Party caucus that embraces the PAC's principles of "fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, less government, states' rights, national security," as he put it.
Also vetting a slate of candidates is the newly-formed Liberty First PAC, headed by Chicago-based Tea Party organizer Eric Odom. That PAC could turn some heads this week if it follows through on plans to endorse former GOP Rep. J.D. Hayworth in his challenge to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Odom's PAC raised just $13,000 in 2009, according to Federal Election Commission records. But some 3,400 self-identified PAC "members" have pledged to donate $100 apiece this year, he said -- putting potential PAC receipts well into the six-figure range. The PAC will also train and groom candidates and grassroots organizers at half a dozen conventions nationwide this year through its so-called Patriot Caucus project.
The PAC is "going to become the get-out-the-vote arm of the Tea Party movement," Odom said. So far, the Liberty First PAC has handed out $500 checks to conservative GOP House candidates Adam Kinzinger, in Illinois' 11th District, and Rick Barber, in Alabama's 2nd. While some Tea Party organizers have taken heat for self-dealing or for close ties to the GOP, Odom stressed that his PAC is run by a 30-member advisory committee of grassroots Tea Party activists from around the country.
One pro-Tea Party PAC that's fended off criticism is the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, which first formed as a pro-McCain PAC during the 2008 presidential race. The group recently renamed itself Our Country Deserves Better-Tea Party Express to better reflect its mission, said its chief strategist, Sal Russo, president of the Sacramento-based consulting firm Russo Marsh & Associates.
The PAC netted more than $2 million last year, public records show, but doled out only about $328,000 in political expenditures. Much of that went for independent-expenditure campaign ads to support successful Senate GOP candidate Scott Brown in Massachusetts. The PAC is also spending heavily on an independent-expenditure campaign to defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada this year. The PAC organized two Tea Party Express bus tours last year and will run a third in March.
"At the end of the day, you have to be engaged in political activity," said Russo. "Unless you change the players who are in Washington, or who are in your state capitals or in city halls, you're not going to change the things you're unhappy about."
Some Tea Party money is running through unconventional channels. The Tea Party Patriots, a 501(c)4 advocacy group headed by attorney Mark Meckler, has launched a political group dubbed the Tea Party Patriots PAC -- but it's not registered with the FEC. It's actually a so-called 527 group, a political organization that reports to the IRS but that may not explicitly endorse candidates or make direct campaign contributions. More than half a dozen state-level Tea Party "PACs," from Arkansas to Delaware, Louisiana and Ohio, have also registered with the IRS as 527 groups.
Conservative candidates acknowledge that the movement remains nebulous, and that it's tough to pin down which donations come from Tea Party activists. So far the big money still appears to come from sources with GOP ties, such as the multimillion-dollar FreedomWorks organization run by former House Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey, and the seven-figure leadership PAC run by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
But Tea Party organizers say there's plenty of room for growth. The liberal grassroots PAC MoveOn.org started on a shoestring in 1998, noted Odom. That PAC netted close to $40 million in the 2008 cycle. Odom would like to emulate that model: "This year, in my opinion, the movement needs to be focused almost solely on electoral success."