Tea Party Searches For Dollars–and Sense

Though, even when they're broke, they keep chugging along.

By Jamilah King Aug 09, 2010

The Tea Party’s got fundraising issues. Turns out that the same anti-establishment rhetoric that helped put them on the national stage is also leading some Tea Partiers to question the ethics of soliciting funds from the sort of major donors who’ve long funded conservative politics. In turn, those donors have become wary of publicly embracing the Tea Party, for good reason. Now folks inside and outside of the so-called movement are wondering if its reluctance to fall in line with traditional fundraising will jeopardize its long-term sustainability.

It’s an age-old question in the world of political organizing: How can a group that’s actively about "outworking the establishment," as one conservative funder told Politico, work within the establishment to achieve its goals? For some supporters, the answer is simple: You can’t. At least not without compromising your political ideals.

"When you start chasing the money, you start having to compromise, and that’s where a lot of these D.C. organizations go wrong," Everett Wilkinson, a Tea Party money man in South Florida, told Politico. "If we stay trim and we keep out overhead small, we won’t have to raise a lot of money and we won’t have to compromise. No one owns us."

For folks on the other end of the spectrum, it’s less an issue of ownership than longevity, and the harsh reality that movements don’t often move very far without money.

But the Tea Party’s no ordinary "grassroots" political engine. As proletariat as it’s portrayed in some media, its roots are easily traced to the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange. Meanwhile, its rhetoric is the angry, albeit predictable result of a declining white majority. And its interests have proved squarely in line with a corporate America that fears the Obama administration’s so-called "socialist plot" to undermine free market capitalism.

Case in point? Last year’s healthcare debate, where Tea Party organizers incited populist rage at a series of very well publicized town hall meetings. As the healthcare reform heated up in Washington, Tea Party organizers went across the country pointing fingers at politicians, rallying angry mobs, toting guns, and picking fights.

This year, while Congress is on recess and midterms lurk less than three months away, the town hall meetings are sure to heat up. Talking Points Memo‘s got a list of Top 10 town hall meetings to watch, including four this week by Arizona Sen. John McCain and a National Tea Party Tele-Town Hall hosted by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Endangered Democrats are also holding their own meetings in key battleground districts, including ones in Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri and Arkansas. And California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman — and her bottomless piggy bank — are considering taking some face-to-face time with voters this month.

So while the Tea Party movement may be less steady than it was a year ago, the core principles that they’re fighting for didn’t start, and won’t end, with them.