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Is GOP Absorbing the Tea Party, or Is the Establishment Toppling?

October 18, 2011 - 6:00pm

Is the GOP co-opting the tea party movement, or are tea partiers taking down the establishment and sending the RINOs packing?

A lengthy New York Times magazine article this week quoted several establishment Republicans crowing over what they see as the demise of the two-year-old tea party activism.

Bill Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard and a Fox News contributor, said the tea party peddles "an infantile form of conservatism."

Veteran Republican strategist Scott Reed took the disdain one step further, saying the GOP is steadily co-opting the grass-roots movement.

"Thats the secret to politics: trying to control a segment of people without those people recognizing that youre trying to control them," Reed said of the GOP's assimilation strategy.

This may sound like good news for Barack Obama's beleaguered Democrats, but tea partiers in Florida and nationally say the establishment types have it exactly backward.

"I would just say that we are busy taking over the GOP," said Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for the national tea party network FreedomWorks.

"It will take us years to do, but we are on track. We are starting with taking over as precinct captains and county GOP chairmen. We are also electing true fiscal conservatives to local, state and national office."

Steinhauser, based in Washington, D.C., reiterated the takeover philosophy of FreedomWorks founder, former Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas:

"This is just the beginning of a process that will take us a long time. But in the end we will prevail." And, Steinhauser predicted, "They will follow us."

Angry with RINOs who seek accommodation and compromise with Democrats, tea partiers recall their breaking points with the party establishment.

For some, it was the nomination and subsequent defeat of "maverick" John McCain. For others, it is hot-button issues like immigration that are finessed or flat-out ignored by pandering party bigwigs.

For almost all, there was a prevailing sense that too many mainstream Republicans had simply lost their way.

"The GOP has been poll-driven, image-driven and abandoned its principles, particularly that of limited government, at the drop of a hat," says Henry Kelley, head of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party.

"We decided to give the GOP some spine, and run the risk of alienating the public to do the right thing. Now the establishment GOP has a real choice -- accept the grass-roots tea party as is, or co-opt the movement, kill our energy and watch the Occupy Wall Street crowd re-elect Barack Obama."

Danita Kilcullen, who heads Tea Party Fort Lauderdale, sees the Kristol-Reed game afoot.

"I look at the big-money'national' organizations that now dominate the tea party movement, along withthe big-name Republicans who have attached themselves at the helm of such groups, and it certainly doesappear to methat they are one-and-the-same.

"I constantlyreceive requests for donationsfrom these groups. How is this any differentfrom Republican/Democrat parties and PACs that beg year-around for campaign contributions?" Kilcullen wonders.

Kilcullen, who became involved with the Republican Party in the late '90s, doesn't neatly fit the GOP mold. She belongs toFloridiansfor Legal Immigration to block illegal aliens, and she has picketed alongside activists Rev. O'Neal Dozier, Tom Trento and Joe Kaufman to protest what she calls "jihadi mosques" in South Florida.

"To found and leada tea party came naturally and is, in fact,a manifestation of a somewhat rebellious or revolutionarynature," she observes.

Patricia Sullivan views herself as more of a patriot than a revolutionary, but she sees the same dangers of co-optation. While Sullivan believes that conservatives have been largely "disenfranchised" by the GOP, she eschews references to rebellion and favors the more diplomatic term, "determination."

Sullivan, a Mike Huckabee supporter in 2008, said McCain "was the straw that broke the camel's back." As head of the North Lake County Tea Party, she ran for the 2010 GOP nomination in the 8th Congressional District (where former state Sen. Daniel Webster ultimately ousted Democrat Alan Grayson).

Since then, Sullivan has become chairwoman of the Tea Party Network, a coalition of 70 tea groups around Florida.

Personally, she favors Herman Cain in the presidential sweepstakes for 2012.

"I'm glad there's an 'Anybody But Mitt Romney' attitude out there," Sullivan said.

Though Cain won the state party's Presidency 5 straw poll in a show of rank-and-file strength that boosted his campaign nationally, Sullivan was rankled by what she saw as overweening elitism at the Orlando convention.

"The first 1,000 seats were blocked off for party leaders and elected officials, who were ushered to their seats. Compare that treatment to the 'little people' who worked hard.

"This is what's wrong with America: Everyone feels entitled to something they didn't work for. You're not better just because you write a $5,000 check," said Sullivan, who helped host Gov. Rick Scott's budget rollout in the tiny town of Eustis last year.

In contrast to the big-money party apparatus, Sullivan says grass-roots tea partiers operate by the sweat of their brow. "No one's giving us any money. There's no Koch [Brothers] cash," she says.

Sullivan believes the party establishment is capable of reforming, especially at the local level.

Pointing to Lake County's Republican Executive Committee, she noted, "There are some establishment folks who didn't like tea initially. But new leadership has come in that appreciates the energy the movement brings."

Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist based in Tallahassee, dismissed the elitist notion that tea partiers are being co-opted.

"You can't co-opt something that's altered your own DNA," Wilson said.

In Florida, Wilson says party leadership "isn't as tolerant of supporting someone you don't like just because you think they can win -- the logic of Charlie Crist."

Nationally, Wilson believes the tea movement has given a caffeine jolt to activism at all levels.

"A couple of years ago, it was tough to get conservatives out of bed to vote for McCain. Now, they're eager to work," he said.

From his Panhandle perspective, Kelley sees the tea movement as both diffusely organized and passionately energetic.

"When a group is this disorganized, its easy for anyone to claim a tea party mantle, and during the [2010] legislative session, several folks who appear to have been bought and paid for by the RPOF represented themselves as 'tea party' spokesmen.The grass roots rejected this notion.

"Now, the grassroots has a defined agenda, and we are not letting anyone speak for us. We, the grass roots of the tea party, are supporting an ethics bill which has been submitted five times to a Republican-dominated Legislature, and it pretty much goes without saying the establishment clearly doesnt want it.Its up to us to make them want it," said Kelley, who chairs the Tea Party Network's legislative team.

Kelley said the "most telling example of the Republican establishment trying to dictate affairs, only to be rejected by the real grass-roots, is Rick Perry."

"Governor Perry burst on the scene and received massive media attention and immediate endorsements by some of Floridas political elite.Yet my emails, from grass roots around the state of Florida, told a wildly different story and a startling distrust of his policies.

"A few debates later, Rick Perry and the Republicans are trying to figure out where his campaign is, and Herman Cain, the first candidate I have received supportive emails on, is on the rise."

The mainstream media -- which fixate on money as a barometer of current and future success -- play an enabling role with national Republicans.

"Despite the fact Perry is no longer in the lead, or near the lead in the polls, the Sunday talk shows are desperately trying to focus the national attention on Perry versus Romney," Kelley observes.

With the insurgent Cain leading or statistically tied in national polls, "that premise is rejected by the grass roots, and we recognize now our strength to set the agenda, even on a national level," he said.

Ultimately, tea partiers say they remain in rock-solid opposition to one thing: the "big-government" agenda.

"That is the glue that makes the tea party work -- a relentless focus on policy, and yes, finding candidates who support actual limited government. We have shifted the nations discussion, and that work will not end short of the 2012 election cycle," Kelley concluded.

Still, doubts linger.

Seth McKee, a political science professor at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said, "I'm a big believer that if voters are upset enough, then they can dictate the shots. But it also would appear that 2012 isn't as white hot as 2010, and the steam of the tea party movement is slowing a bit.

"If Romney is the nominee, a lot of tea party folks will be upset at that," he predicted.

Contact Kenric Ward at or at (772) 801-5341.

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