WASHINGTON – On a Saturday in August when most of the political class has escaped this city’s swelter, 50 Tea Party leaders have flown in from across the country to jam into a conference room in an office building, apparently unconcerned that the fancy address does not guarantee air-conditioning on weekends. They have come to learn how to take over the country, voter by voter.
Look for houses with flags, they are instructed; their residents tend to be patriotic conservatives. Marine flags or religious symbols, ditto. Take doggie treats with you as you canvass neighborhoods – "Now they are your best friend; it’s dog person to dog person." Don’t just hand out yard signs and bumper stickers for your candidate – offer to plant them on the lawn or paste them on the bumper (front driver’s side works best.) Follow up with thank you notes, the handwritten kind. Be polite, and don’t take rejection personally: "Remember, it’s for freedom!"
This is a three-day "boot camp" at FreedomWorks, the Washington advocacy group that has done more than any other organization to build the Tea Party movement. For 18 months, the group’s young staff has been conducting training sessions like this one across the country, in hotel conference rooms or basements of bars, shaping the inchoate anger of the Tea Party with its libertarian ideology and leftist organizing tactics.
The goal is to turn local Tea Party groups into a standing get-out-the-vote operation in congressional districts across the country. Sarah Palin made community organizing a term of derision during the 2008 presidential campaign; FreedomWorks has made Tea Party conservatives the surprise community organizing force of the 2010 midterm elections, showing on-the-ground strength in races like the Republican primary for the Senate in Alaska on Tuesday, where the upstart Joe Miller was leading Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a race that may take weeks to call.
"This movement, if we can turn out hundreds or thousands to the streets to protest and wave signs and yell and make an impact on public policy debate, then we can make a lot of difference," Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks’ chief organizer for the Tea Party groups, told the leaders gathered here. "But if those same people go and walk neighborhoods and do all the things we’re talking about, put up the door-hangers in the final 72 hours and make the phone calls, we may crush some of these guys."
In recent months, FreedomWorks has teamed up with Glenn Beck, the biggest celebrity of the Tea Party movement to promote it. This weekend, with many Tea Party supporters descending on Washington for a rally that Beck is holding at the Lincoln Memorial, FreedomWorks is staging a convention where Tea Party candidates will address 1,600 activists.
Through its political action committee, FreedomWorks plans to spend $10 million on the midterm elections, on campaign paraphernalia – signs for candidates like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida are stacked around the offices here – voter lists, and a phone system that allows volunteers to make calls for candidates around the country from their home computers. With "microfinancing" grants, it will steer money from FreedomWorks donors – the tax code protects their anonymity – to local Tea Parties.
Other groups will spend more. On the left, a coalition of unions plans to spend at least $88 million; on the right, Americans for Prosperity will spend $45 million.
But FreedomWorks’ pitch to activists is that the money is not really the point. It is about convincing friends, neighbors and strangers in congressional districts where 100 or 1,000 votes can make all the difference. The activists tend to be a zealous lot to start with; FreedomWorks urges them to channel that energy by becoming precinct captains, knocking on doors and learning from the way that Barack Obama – not someone Tea Party supporters generally admire – wrapped up the Democratic nomination for president by organizing the caucus states.
FreedomWorks was founded in 1984 as Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was financed by the Koch Foundation, the underwriter for many libertarian causes. In 2003, it hired as its chairman Dick Armey, the former Texas congressman and House majority leader who was a force behind the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.
While Armey serves as a kind of ambassador for FreedomWorks, the day-to-day task of organizing Tea Party groups has gone to a staff of about 20 hard-charging conservatives in their 20s and 30s – a striking contrast to a movement that is made up largely of people twice their age and more. Tea Party leaders at the boot camp gasped when Steinhauser emphasized the importance of going after so-called Reagan Democrats and then noted that he himself was not born until 1981, after Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration.
Staff members like to say that they model FreedomWorks on the Grateful Dead or Virgin Atlantic Airways: They want to build a like-minded community, an endeavor that is as much fun as work.
But they are also deeply ideological; a portrait of Ayn Rand hangs on the office walls along with one of Jerry Garcia. FreedomWorks was founded to promote the theories of the Austrian economic school, which argues that economic models are useless because they cannot account for all the variables of human behavior, and that markets must be unfettered to succeed.
New employees receive a required-reading list that includes "Rules for Radicals," by Saul Alinsky, the father of modern community organizing, and "A Force More Powerful," about 20th-century social movements, as well as Frederic Bastiat’s "The Law," which argues that governments are essentially stealing when they tax their citizens to spend on welfare, infrastructure or public education. FreedomWorks urges Tea Party groups to read the same works. ("It’s better than ‘Going Rogue,"’ said Steinhauser, referring to Palin’s memoir.)
While other conservative groups have tried to mobilize the Tea Party energy, FreedomWorks moved first, and most aggressively. Hours after Rick Santelli called for "a Chicago tea party" in a widely viewed rant on CNBC in February 2009, it put up a website with tips on how to hold a tea party, then a Google map of events. As more people found the map on Web searches, they e-mailed FreedomWorks information on their own events, ultimately allowing Steinhauser to compile a list of thousands of Tea Party contacts across the country.
That list allowed the group to mobilize volunteers to Massachusetts in January to campaign for Scott P. Brown, who won the U.S. Senate seat that had been occupied by Edward M. Kennedy for nearly 50 years, and to Utah to elect Mike Lee as the Republican nominee for Senate after Tea Party groups deposed the three-term incumbent Robert F. Bennett. About 180,000 people voted in the primary that Lee won; FreedomWorks says 30,000 had received a phone call or a visit from its volunteers.
Its candidates are libertarians and economic conservatives, but in the 2010 midterm elections, FreedomWorks is urging Tea Party groups to work for any Republican, on the theory that a compromised Republican is better than Democratic control of Congress.
Steinhauser has traveled to 42 states to train local groups or meet with leaders in races where FreedomWorks hopes to make a difference. But the Tea Parties like to think of themselves as leaderless organizations, and are suspicious of attempts to co-opt their energy.
In a swing through New England last month, he met with activists eager to defeat Charlie Bass, a former Republican congressman from New Hampshire who is running again in the Sept. 14 primary. But they did not want to endorse either of the Tea Party candidates because they feared their membership would resent anything that looked like top-down control. "You have to endorse," Steinhauser told them. "If you don’t, the bad guys will." Each group should endorse separately, he advised, so that the local news media would write a new story each time.
Still, the activists were eager for outside advice.
"If you give us the education, we’ll do the work," Robert Horr, the chairman of the Cumberland County Tea Party, in Maine, told him. "Just aim us." Steinhauser encouraged the Maine activists to start getting behind candidates to challenge Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican up for re-election in 2012.
FreedomWorks is focused particularly on midterm races in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Florida. For the boot camp in Washington, it had flown in representatives from those states.
Nan Swift, FreedomWorks’ campaign manager, encouraged them to stage dramatic events to call attention to their candidates – "Everyone already thinks we’re crazy, embrace it!" – and to sign up for their opponents’ e-mails, then show up to their events and swamp them with signs.
Steinhauser urged them not to waste their energy on districts so deeply Democratic that they cannot be won.
Still, he did not cut off any opportunity; after all, he noted, no one thought Scott Brown could win. "This year, if there’s one message you can take away," he said, "it’s that nothing is impossible for us."