Since early 2009, countless tea party groups have formed, most of them small clusters of local activists, but a smaller handful have emerged as major players on the national stage. From message coordination to campaign spending, they all do something different, and they don't always get along. The following is a guide to the giants of the tea party movement.
Tea Party Nation
What it does This group held the first-ever tea party convention in Nashville, Tenn., in February and will hold another next year, paid for with sponsor money and ticket fees. Why it matters Controversy around the Tea Party Nation, a for-profit company, has caused some divisions in the movement. Many criticized its convention as not truly "grassroots" because tickets for the full weekend cost $549. But the convention brought some groups together and marked Sarah Palin's first foray into the movement. How you might know it Palin's convention speech yielded a storm of media coverage, as did her reported $100,000 speaking fee and the hefty price of admission.
Americans for Prosperity
What it does This organization trains activists in multiple states, has helped organize rallies, and spends millions of dollars to air issue ads. Why it matters Founded by billionaire David Koch, Americans for Prosperity, registered as a 501(c)(4) advocacy group, and the AFP Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity, do more than host activist training events and educate a mil-lion members in 30 states: Both groups will be major players in 2010 election spending. Together, they have announced plans to run roughly $4.6 million in TV ads in Democratic-held congressional districts. How you might know it The group's undisclosed funding has led to accusations of secrecy, and President Obama criticized AFP in a stump speech for campaign finance reform. A recent New Yorker profile of David Koch sparked more debate.
Tea Party Patriots
What it does The movement's largest membership organization, the Tea Party Patriots is a network for leaders to coordinate on nearly any front. Why it matters A 501(c)(4) advocacy group, the Tea Party Patriots hosts weekly conference calls and a website where organizers can share ideas, learn from each other, and coordinate events and initiatives. Organizers estimate total membership is 15 million. How you might know it The group is known for its sheer size, but it takes few unified actions and thus makes less news than some others. It does not associate with the National Tea Party Federation, the Tea Party Express, or the Tea Party Nation, doubting their grassroots credibility.
Tea Party Express
What it does This political action committee has sponsored three nationwide bus tours, drawing thousands to rallies and building membership. It also spends money on conservative candidates. Why it matters The Tea Party Express's rallies account for a significant portion of the movement's media coverage. More important, the group is largely responsible for a few victories by notable candidates, having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Senate bids of Republicans Sharron Angle in Nevada and Joe Miller in Alaska. It is the only national tea party group that raises and spends significant money on GOP primaries. How you might know it Former Chairman Mark Williams caused a huge backlash this summer by comparing the NAACP to slave traders. Success in elections has brought more favorable press since then.
What it does FreedomWorks facilitates activism by advising its members where to find rallies and events. It also hosts activists for training seminars in Washington and helps organize rallies. Why it matters This group was instrumental in supporting the movement early on, facilitating the nationwide Tax Day protests in 2009 by working with organizers and turning its website into a hub to help people locate rallies. Under Chairman Dick Armey, a former House majority leader, it has also organized rallies in Washington. FreedomWorks adds political savvy to the grassroots movement by training grassroots activists. How you might know it The tea party movement has raised Armey's profile in the past year. FreedomWorks' activist-training seminars in D.C. have garnered press coverage.
National Tea Party Federation
What it does The federation serves as a discussion forum for tea party organizers from multiple groups, and it coordinates responses to attacks on the movement. Why it matters This is the only organization that ties the movement together, which is composed of both large national organizations and smaller, local and regional groups. The Tea Party Patriots has abstained from joining the federation. The umbrella group, organized in response to accusations of racism in the tea party ranks, coordinates responses to anti-tea-party attacks and hosts online discussion between organizers. How you might know it Fears that the National Tea Party Federation would seek to control the movement caused a stir when it was formed. More recently, the group demanded that the Tea Party Express expel Mark Williams for racist remarks.
This article appears in the Sep. 11, 2010, edition of National Journal.