Ticking Off the Tea Party Crowd

The leaked RNC fundraising memo was roundly criticized. But the GOP’s biggest worry may be the reaction among Tea Party leaders—who were not amused.

The leaked RNC fundraising memo was roundly criticized. But the GOP’s biggest worry may be the reaction among Tea Party leaders—who were not amused. Plus, Eric Alterman on the RNC playing the fear card and Conor Friedersdorf on the RNC's self-inflicted wound.

Pretty much anyone who is politically engaged could find something to be offended about in the 72-page Republican National Committee presentation that leaked to Politico this week. The document features President Obama as the Joker from Batman, an inflammatory image popular among Tea Party protesters, thus linking the party with its fringe at the very moment they’re trying to court moderates. It describes the party’s top financial backers as “ego-driven” and easily influenced by “tchotchkes,” thus biting the hand that feeds them—at a time when the party’s chairman, Michael Steele, has had his own problems with donors. And as for its small donors, the presentation describes them as “reactionary,” motivated by “fear” and “extreme negative feelings toward existing administration”—thus deflating the high-flying patriotic rhetoric of the grassroots.

“They don’t get it,” Judson Phillips, a Nashville lawyer who organized the National Tea Party Convention last month, told The Daily Beast. “They freaking don’t get it.”

The RNC moved quickly to disassociate itself from the document. “Our donors are compassionate, concerned activists out there who support a party that they believe in,” Michael Steele, who was not in attendance at the presentation, told Fox News on Thursday. “And we want that to continue.”

But the damage was done, at least among some leaders of the Tea Party crowd, who found the memo condescending.

“They don’t get it,” Judson Phillips, a Nashville lawyer who organized the National Tea Party Convention last month, told the Beast. “They freaking don’t get it.” Phillips said he disagreed with the characterization of small donors as “reactionary” and motivated by “fear.” “Our motives are patriotic,” he said. “Can they be any more insulting? I guess they could have called us teabaggers, but Holy Cow, I’m so blown away by the whole thing I’m just sitting here stunned.”

A spokesman for FreedomWorks, the activist group led by Dick Armey that helped organize the first Tea Party protests, called the presentation “inept and silly.”

“I’m just kind of shocked,” the group’s spokesman, Adam Brandon, said. “I don't get what they were trying to accomplish... if I were them I’d try to say we're strong on policy and we're going to get the energy of these Tea Party activists and earn their trust. That seems a much more compelling message than cartoons.”

He added that the “fear” descriptor, while technically accurate in the sense donors are concerned about government policy, sent the wrong message. “When people start using the term ‘fear’ you start getting the black helicopter mythology going,” he said.

Eric Alterman: The RNC Plays the Fear CardConor Friedersdorf: The RNC’s Self-Inflicted WoundJohn M. O’Hara, the author of A New American Tea Party, offered his own account of the grassroots when asked if he felt the RNC’s description was accurate. “Tea Party activists and the millions of Americans that share their concerns are committed patriots interested in putting the country back on the path to fiscal responsibility with common-sense solutions to our country’s problems,” he said in an email. "The Tea Party movement is not about partisanship or personalities. This grassroots surge is rooted in concern for the direction of our nation regardless of what party holds the White House or Congress.”

The irritation in Tea Party ranks is no small matter. Their grassroots support has been crucial for the Republican Party over the last year. Tea Party types helped to raise millions of dollars and organize volunteers in key races, such as Scott Brown’s winning campaign for the Massachusetts Senate seat left vacant by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. While the GOP has a strong headwind at its back going into the midterms, they’ll need that kind of support this fall if they’re to capitalize on the Democrats’ vulnerabilities. Steele has aggressively courted Tea Party members in recent weeks and held a meeting with a number of activist leaders last month in Washington.

It’s unclear just how deep and widespread the damage from the memo will be. Some Tea Partiers downplay its significance.

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“I see it as being no different than Democrats playing off liberal fears of Bush,” Dana Loesch, a radio host and co-founder of the St. Louis Tea Party, said in an email. “I see people trying to define this as ‘proof that the GOP has been co-opted by the scary right-wing’ narrative, a way to exploit any tension between Tea Partiers and the GOP. It's just an attempt to neuter any Tea Party support for conservative candidates who happen to have an R by their names. I'll be shocked if anyone of my acquaintance buys into the tactic.” She added that the presentation’s take on its small donors is “an accurate description of anyone donating to any party: fear of the opposition's policies.”

Karin Hoffman, founder of DC Works for Us and one of the attendees at Steele’s Tea Party summit, agreed with some of the RNC’s labels of the party’s donor base. “I would say that we are reactionary,” she said in an interview, adding that she wanted to return to “a time of less government.” Asked about the relationship between activists and the RNC, Hoffman indicated her group was still not comfortable associating with the party. “There have been some gestures [from the RNC]... to demonstrate that we have been heard, but overall the discussion is just beginning,” she said.

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.