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06.23.10

The Tea Party Conspiracy Theory

Florida Republicans are accusing the state’s Tea Party, which will have its own candidates on the ballot in about two dozen races, of being a Democratic front operation. Is it?

Have conservatives created a monster? Tea Party leaders are concerned that their brand is being used against them in the form of phony candidates that would split the conservative vote. A blowup over a newly minted third party in Florida has become the latest to draw their ire.

The Florida Tea Party, which will be on the ballot in close to two dozen state and federal races this November, is raising eyebrows by fielding a number of candidates with limited experience and campaign operations, including a handful registered as Democrats. Conservative activists have sued to stop the party from participating in the elections, and they aren’t the only ones upset—the state Republican Party is sounding the alarm as well in the strongest terms possible.

Sarlin discusses Grayson, and the overall state of the Tea Party

The accusations mirror similar claims in Nevada, where a Tea Party Senate candidate, indicted businessman Scott Ashjian, has been attacked by a number of Tea Party groups throughout the country as a fraud out to bolster Harry Reid’s re-election hopes. The Tea Party Express’ PAC even took out an ad to warn Nevada conservatives to stay away.

The Florida case also comes amid a continuing dispute on the Democratic side over whether primary challengers in South Carolina received Republican help, a controversy that drew national attention after a previously unknown candidate, Alvin Greene, won the party’s Senate nomination over a more experienced opponent.

“We do have concerns about ‘false flag’ parties, that have the sole purpose of trying to split this movement,” the head of Tea Party Nation told The Daily Beast.

“We do have concerns about ‘false flag’ parties, that have the sole purpose of trying to split this movement,” Judson Phillips, head of Tea Party Nation, told The Daily Beast.

Andrew Roberts: The Tea Party Is Crass But RightIn Florida, the evidence of a Democratic conspiracy is circumstantial at best. But Republicans gained new traction this week with a Roll Call article outlining connections between Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson, the famed firebrand who accused Republicans of telling patients to “die quickly,” and the upstart Tea Party. As reported in the piece, one of the Tea Party candidates for the state House, Victoria Torres, took $11,000 from the Grayson campaign for polling work. And one of the Florida Tea Party’s most prominent backers is longtime political consultant Doug Guetzloe, who serves as a Grayson appointee on a business advisory board and whose teenage son has worked as an intern for Grayson.

"Alan Grayson along with his dubious cohorts and their Democrat allies have orchestrated a coordinated effort to mislead and confuse Florida voters and their actions are reprehensible," Republican Party of Florida executive director Ronnie Whitaker said in a statement. "This isn't a game, elections have real consequences."

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A spokesman for Grayson, Todd Jurkowski, denied the charges to The Daily Beast and produced a copy of the poll he said the party commissioned from Torres, which was publicly released at the time it was conducted. It was a publicity stunt: Grayson polled himself as a candidate in the Republican primary and found himself in the lead. Jurkowski said the party sought a Republican pollster to better capture that side of the electorate, and that the firm that conducted the poll, Middleton Market Research, was subcontracted by Torres. (Torres did not return requests for comment.) As for Guetzloe, Jurkowski noted that Grayson has plausible appeal to some Tea Party members given his close association with Ron Paul on legislation like an amendment to audit the Fed.

The Florida Tea Party is also denying any attempt to swing races on behalf of Democrats, with members telling The Daily Beast that their refusal to team up with the GOP is a function of local issues, with ethics at the top. The former state party chairman, Jim Greer, was arrested on corruption charges shortly after he resigned his position, and one of the top Republican fundraisers, Scott Rothstein, recently began serving a 50-year prison sentence for running a Ponzi scheme. Support from a number of Republican state lawmakers for a billion-dollar rail project that Guetzloe led a campaign to stop last year is also cited as a major factor.

Guetzloe says his connections to Grayson are irrelevant to the Tea Party, which is fielding a candidate in his district, Peg Dunmire. He added that the logical leap from Grayson paying $11,000 to a pollster to somehow funneling money to candidates all over the state to convince them to run defied credulity. Guetzloe said he had talked with Grayson a number of times on the phone to discuss legislation like the auto bailout and stimulus package, but that they had not spent significant time together in person. But if Guetzloe was trying to put to bed rumors he and Grayson are on the same team, he sure wasn’t trying too hard:

“I’ll probably get in trouble, but he’s very bright, a lot nicer person than he projects, and I’ve never seen him raise his voice,” he said. He continued: “There’s been a great deal of depth in our discussions, he’s caught me off guard more than once—I think he was an economics major. I was trying to defend George W. Bush’s stimulus to him and I couldn’t do it.” He continued again: “All the stuff you see on TV from him are theatrics, I don’t believe he believes any of it—I don’t believe he eats Republican children for breakfast... It’s theatrics and it’s worked well for him. He has more contributors than anyone in the nation. The guy is a brilliant politician.”

His bile is primarily reserved for the state party instead. “It’s like Goebbels rolled out of his grave and is working on the Republican committee,” Guetzloe said of their attacks. “I believe the Tea Party is the new Republican Party as far as I’m concerned.” Guetzloe was fired from his Orlando radio show this week, a decision he believes was retaliation for his refusal to walk the GOP line. The station says the move was unrelated and due to ratings.

Even after the Alvin Greene debacle, Guetzloe’s faith in Tea Party candidates to run competitive races is a bit of a stretch. Grayson opponent Peg Dunmire’s son, Darin Dunmire, is running for a state seat while working most of the year in India as a commercial pilot, for example. According to his mother, the two of them will not spend significant time attending rallies, fundraisers, or going door to door, relying instead on Twitter and Facebook to get their message out. Her most recent financial disclosure filings list only immediate friends and family as donors, along with over $13,000 of that from her own pocket. Dunmire says she has spent “between $20,000 and $80,000” of her own money but declined to give a more precise estimate.

Dunmire said she wasn’t surprised by Guetzloe’s connection to Grayson given that “there are a couple of things that he has done to endear himself to certain more conservative leaning people,” citing his work with Ron Paul. However, she insisted she didn’t share Guetzloe’s kind words for the congressman.

“Do not misunderstand, I do not have any admiration for Grayson. He uses outrageous behavior and language. He's just outrageous,” she said. “I am 180 degrees away from Alan Grayson’s belief in the role of federal government.”

A spokesman for the Dick Armey-led Freedomworks, Adam Brandon, told The Daily Beast that allegedly phony Tea Parties were not costing him sleep, adding that the movement’s time was best spent organizing for the elections rather than attacking third parties.

“If we can communicate with our networks and the base well enough, I don’t worry about the potential infiltrators,” he said.

Brandon noted that conservatives have not always opposed third party candidates in recent months. Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in New York’s 23rd district became a cause célèbre for Republican leaders like Sarah Palin before he lost to his Democratic opponent in a special election.

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.