Tea Party in the Streets

Conservative groundwork could push Republicans to victory in 2012


The Determinators, a new documentary produced by the Tea Party Patriots, is hitting voters’ mailboxes in a sign of the vigorous and sophisticated grassroots organizing presence of outside conservative groups.

The Tea Party affiliate sent out 360,000 copies of The Determinators to "undecided households in key states," according to the Patriots’ website, along with a copy of the Constitution.

"We wanted to make sure that people in the country understand why we are concerned about the healthcare law and the choices that our country has this election as far as the future of our country goes," Jenny Beth Martin, Tea Party Patriots cofounder, told the Free Beacon.

The Patriots followed up on the documentary by calling those households, Martin said.

The documentary is part of a larger effort by the Tea Party Patriots and many other conservative groups to increase voter turnout.

Martin explained that the Patriots have more than 3,500 local groups. The central Patriots organization serves as the support organization for these local groups.

Jackie Bodnar, press secretary for FreedomWorks, said that the "bottom up-structure" of the conservative grassroots movement distinguishes it from liberal organizing efforts.

"We have volunteers," she said. The left has more of a "top-down" structure, she added, that often relies on paying union members to attend events and do the groundwork for campaigns.

This "fundamentally different" structure changes the dynamic of volunteer interactions with voters.

"The difference is really the sincerity and authenticity," she said.

This kind of grassroots organizing is "new to the right," said Levi Russell, director of public affairs for Americans for Prosperity (AFP).

The left "was very successful" at grassroots organizing, he said, especially with the efforts of unions. Those efforts will be replicated this year.

However, this year conservatives are able to match unions "man for man," Russell said.

"There’s just a different level of energy, different level of enthusiasm" among volunteers compared to four years ago, said Gena Bell, a Tea Party organizer in Ohio. "They’re full in."

Bell described a diffuse network of conservative activists across Ohio that have been working in their own neighborhoods for months to reach voters.

"Areas are different," she said, and so local residents have focused on their own neighborhoods.

"We’re the boots on the ground," she said.

FreedomWorks’s Bodnar agreed that this approach is the best: A message is a "lot more powerful … when it’s coming from your neighbor."

FreedomWorks has provided materials, Bell said, but it has been up to local activists to deploy the materials effectively.

Russ Walker, national political director for FreedomWorks, said his organization is "running concerted grassroots efforts in a lot of races" across the country.

He said FreedomWorks has been focusing primarily on Senate races, not the presidential campaign.

"It’s at least as important to have a Senate that will move an agenda" as to have the right president, Walker said.

But the focus on local races will also influence the national election, Bell said.

Bell said that she and her allies are focusing primarily on the Josh Mandel Senate campaign, where they "really felt like that was where we could make the most direct change."

Bell said that those who vote for Mandel would also vote for Romney.

Walker said that FreedomWorks has more two million members nationwide, and that the organization has "really seen a lot of growth over the past four to six years."

That rich network is at work. Walker said there are 50 to 60 FreedomWorks-associated distribution centers in Florida alone.

Russell, the director of public affairs for AFP, said his organization has about 5,000 active volunteers along with about 200 paid staffers. Through their efforts, volunteers have made about 13 million phone calls this year and knocked on about 350,000 doors.

He said AFP made election efforts in 2008 and in 2010, when Republicans seized control of the House, but "nothing on this scale." He added that while AFP’s budget was a bit over $50 million in 2011, this year’s budget may be more than double that.

Russell also emphasized the new technology his group’s volunteers have been using. Volunteers can access an auto-dialer to make phone calls. Volunteers going door to door can use a GPS-enabled tablet that generates a targeted message to particular homes.

AFP does not endorse candidates, but focuses on messaging and education.

The Determinators focuses squarely on Obamacare. The hour-long documentary first discusses the ways that different political philosophies—especially collectivism and Nietzschian nihilism—radically change the nature of healthcare. It then moves into a discussion of several different parts of the 2009 healthcare overhaul, emphasizing a "theme of centralizing government" and actual and potential healthcare rationing.

"I think that the grassroots have woken up," said Nan Swift, former campaigns manager at FreedomWorks who helped to organize Tea Party rallies in 2009 and 2010.

The left has scorned the Tea Party. Politico declared, "The Tea Party Patriots is going postal" when the group mailed out its documentary. The Daily Beast wrote the Tea Party’s obituary in February.

But the Tea Party activists who are on the ground in key states disagree. The "Tea Party has just continued to grow" over the past four years, Swift said.

Andrew Evans   Email Andrew | Full Bio | RSS
Andrew Evans is an assistant editor at National Affairs and a former reporter for the Washington Free Beacon, where he covered government accountability and healthcare issues.

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