Inside The Tea Party Factory

Conservative groups train their cadres in Dallas, where it's one part Hayek, one part Alinsky, and one part Henry Ford. “We’re the salesmen and the production line,” says FreedomWorks' Steinhauser.

Tea Party activists aren’t born — they’re made. Finished and partially-finished products gathered at the 18,500-seat American Airlines Center in Dallas the last week of July, filling the stadium more than halfway, clutching signs for Senate candidate Ted Cruz and cheering as conservative leaders — Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, the media figures Dana Loesch and Glenn Beck — took the stage to Rush or AC/DC. They crowded the food areas of the stadium, buying beers and hot dogs. The four huge screens showed the trailer for Atlas Shrugged, Part 2: Either-Or.

But school came first. For the first hour and a half of FreePAC, FreedomWorks’ convention to coincide with the end of Cruz’s runoff race against David Dewhurst and Glenn Beck’s Restoring Love gathering, the audience listened to a series of presentations on basic campaign tactics like putting up yard signs and doing phone banking.

Brendan Steinhauser, the group’s director of federal and state campaigns, got on stage to explain “sign blitzing” — clustering signs in public places as opposed to just setting one or two up on a private yard.

“FreedomWorks can supply door hangers, palm cards, bumper stickers and walking maps for your district,” the four screens high above Steinhauser’s head read.

“We try to be a good service center and provide good customer service,” Steinhauser told the crowd with a hint of Texas drawl. They listened attentively to him and to other professionals, as well as a couple of star activists the FreedomWorks team has groomed in key races. The attendees, some of whom had come from as far as Canada, would go on a few days later to help push Cruz, formerly a long shot and who never matched his opponent’s fundraising, into an easy win a few days later over establishment favorite Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst.

FreedomWorks has been around in its current form since 2004; before then it was called Citizens for a Sound Economy and funded by the Koch brothers, the billionaire duo who have backed conservative and libertarian causes for decades, and have emerged in the Obama Administration as a hub of conservative money. The group, which split with the Kochs in 2004 after the donors had a falling out with its founder, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, had long tried to drum up the kind of grassroots anti-spending fervor that emerged with a fury in the summer of 2010. Since then group has grown rapidly, deploying staffers to some races and using a Super PAC to get involved in others.

And while the Tea Party was dogged at its start by an allegation that it was an astroturf product of FreedomWorks, that’s never really been true: FreedomWorks served as a midwife at the Tea Party’s birth, and has now devoted itself to replicating the early Tea Party activists. The group and its allies aren’t funding those activists, though; they’re teaching them.

FreedomWorks isn’t just focused on endorsing candidates and injecting money into their races. They’re obsessed with the training of activists. Director Matt Kibbe will only approve spending on a race, Steinhauser said, if the goals include for recruiting a specific number of activists. FreedomWorks, and groups like American Majority that also focus on churning out trained volunteers, have completed the transformation of the Tea Party from groups of disenchanted people gathering in each other’s living rooms — perhaps the movement’s shortest phase — to a machine that produces skilled activists and most importantly, wins races. A Tea Party upset is no longer a surprise, and amateurs are rapidly going pro.

“The way that the RNC or the Republican Party approaches activists is so different from what we do,” said Brendan Steinhauser in an interview with BuzzFeed after the FreePAC rally. Steinhauser looked weary but talked fast, energized by the rally.

“They’re our customers,” he said. “It’s bottom up. I come out and tell you whatever I want to tell you, but you’ve got to buy into this, you’ve got to find value in the training.”

Steinhauser travels the country frequently, stopping in at states where there’s an important campaign going on, but also traveling to swing states and holding training sessions for people interested in getting involved in campaigns. Matt Kibbe, FreedomWorks’ president, describes the sessions as “constant” and estimates that the group holds two or three every week. According to press secretary Jackie Bodnar, the group estimates 105 sessions in the past year. The sessions are held free of charge; FreedomWorks makes plenty of money from donations, from companies like Friess Associates and Crow Holdings.

“There was a time when the new activists didn’t know how to do get-out-the-vote so we did a lot of training on that,” Kibbe said. “As they get more sophisticated, they get better at things than we are.”

The activists, even when not yet schooled in the ways of FreedomWorks, are apt students. An audience member from New Jersey asked how best to go door-to-door in his heavily Democratic district; another wondered how to take advantage of FreedomWorks’ resources even in local races, for school board or county commission.

Matthew Graham, 30, a programmer from Winnipeg, Canada holding a Slurpee, said he’d come down to FreePAC to learn how to get a Tea Party going in his own country.

“I’m trying to figure out how to bring this understanding of conservatism to Canada,” Graham said. “It’s a different culture there.” Graham tried to connect with a Tea Party group in Toronto, but it didn’t work out.

The best ones become more visible, like Indiana activist Greg Fettig or Texas’ Maggie Wright, who both spoke at FreePAC. Both were involved with successful FreedomWorks races.

But their relative sophistication is coming directly via FreedomWorks and other groups that have seized the opportunity to make themselves the producers, and the activists their customers. Part of the presentation in Dallas involved “walking technology” — the group has a smartphone app that has put the old-fashioned process of examining voter rolls and picking out which doors to knock into the hands of whoever has an iPhone. There’s also a social network, Freedom Connector.

“Our relationship with the activists and donors is that we’re a service center,” Steinhauser said. “You’re an investor or you’re a customer, and we’re the salesmen and the production line.”

View Entire List ›


BuzzFeed - Latest