Working as a consultant for the Tea Party is a lot like <i>Fight Club</i>. Rule number one is you don’t talk about consulting for the Tea Party. Rule number two is you don’t talk about consulting for the Tea Party.<br>
Everything I know about being a good consultant comes from Fight Club. Discretion is everything. Rule number one is you don’t talk about consulting for the Tea Party. Rule number two is you don’t talk about consulting for the Tea Party. The story about the wild characters who are shaping this campaign cycle is worth telling, but please excuse my anonymity.
I hold as many meetings as possible over Tanqueray and tonics at the St. Regis hotel on K Street in Washington, D.C. The bar is dark and private, with comfortable couches. Even the gin tastes better there. On weekday afternoons the only people in the bar are foreigners and political consultants long past caring about who actually wins.
“You’re going to see something spectacular,” an old friend who has a knack for black-bag operations said as he proudly downed his vodka. “About a month from now you’ll see ACORN explode from within.” Right on schedule a video was released that showed undercover conservative activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles getting advice from employees at the Baltimore office of the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now on how to smuggle underage El Salvadoran girls into a fictitious brothel.
That’s when I realized this isn’t an average fringe movement. This one is credible, legit and—for the first time in a decade—scaring the crap out of the left. In my years as a campaign hack and then as a consultant, I’ve created more than my share of fake grassroots organizations. Some were downright evil but effective beyond expectations. Did you get an automated call from the sister of a 9/11 victim asking you to reelect President Bush in 2004? That was me. Did you get a piece of mail with the phrase supports abortion on demand as a means of birth control? That may have been me too.
Conservatives had been trying to take down ACORN for three decades. Where they failed, BigGovernment.com and my friends succeeded. In one magnificent explosion, a loose group of troublemakers, libertarians and Republicans took its first scalp. Sonja Merchant-Jones, former co-chair of ACORN’s Maryland chapter, told The New York Times in March, “That 20-minute video ruined 40 years of good work.”
The ACORN blood tasted good. Shortly after, a core group of about 30 of us convened for the first time. It was the kind of conference call during which no one, except the handful with nothing to lose, offered last names. But it didn’t matter. I’d been around long enough to know many of the people by voice. Most of our talk was devoted to rants about the K Street lobbyists who are ruining the GOP. There I sat, in the quiet corner of a coffee shop on K Street, listening to a conference call beating the shit out of the people who keep me in business.
The cynical among us think it’s a group of peasants with pitchforks controlled by an underground cabal of Glenn Beck, wealthy donors and the guys who killed JFK. But the worst thing I can say about the Tea Party I work for is that it can make lots of noise but can’t win without professional help. I love the irony of helping run this organization from the St. Regis Bar.
This cause is worthier and more real than anything I’ve done in the past. I’m all in. When I met the colorful characters behind the organization, I was really all in. None of them were prom king, none went to college east of the Appalachians (even the Jews), and a lot of them smoke a pack a day just because they’re not supposed to. Unlike most of the tired, airbrushed conservatives living in D.C., the homegrown activists I work with are the real deal. They may not read much, but they all know their Ayn Rand. Backcountry rubes they are not. They have tattoos, even tramp stamps. My favorite is on Katie O’Malley, the executive director of Ensuring Liberty Corporation: Ronald Wilson Reagan, 1911–2004.
I get out of Washington whenever possible, especially during tourist season. In late spring I visited a Tea Party rally in suburban St. Louis. It was what you would imagine: angst-ridden Caucasians sitting in lawn chairs with signs such as My daughter is nine and already $41,000 in debt. It was not an angry crowd, and in all candor I never heard a racist word uttered.
The speeches went on for hours. The sun was shining. It was the kind of day when you could take a nap under a tree. The organizer had personally delivered about a thousand activists. It was her big day. Two hours into the speeches she sat down on the warm grass next to me at the back of the rally and said, “This is the perfect day. Now all I need is a joint.” That tells you everything you need to know about my friends.
We are tremendously plugged in to BigGovernment.com and its stable of writers. Our news cycle is measured in minutes, not days. Combine the DNA of a flash mob, a news addict and a conservative who feels betrayed by the spending excesses of George W. Bush, sprinkle in some anxiety and you’ve got my people.
The campaign plan for one of the organizations I help uses the phrase black arts when talking about how we’ll win in the fall. It’s not a document filled with dirty tricks but a plan to create a nonprofit organization called Ensuring Liberty Corporation. It uses unconventional methods to get our message out and support grassroots conservatives: “Ensuring Liberty’s relationships run deep into the new media and use of cloud computing and innovation along with the black arts of campaign management. That is not to say that [we] will undertake actions that contravene any legal or ethical principles; however, the use of surprise, investigative journalism and other key experience will allow for rapid deployment of strategies that many candidates simply do not understand or take advantage of during their actual election campaign.” Of course, the Tea Party is not as cohesive as anyone thinks. It’s not a party or even an organization. You have to understand the state of the Republican Party to understand how there can still be oxygen in the room for the Tea Party. Bush mangled the GOP brand into a grotesque form that conservatives haven’t recognized in five years.
Conservatives now live in the political-party equivalent of Mad Max. Law and order inside the Republican Party has deteriorated, leaving regional warlords to scavenge over what’s left. The trouble is that some of the regional warlords are nuts or crooks. Among the better-known scavengers is Eric Odom’s Tea Party-related PAC, Liberty First, which I believe will be able to raise and spend millions this fall.
The rivalry between different Tea Party groups is real, and the leaders in Odom’s group don’t care much for the other leaders. Other groups are spending political capital fighting to lead a movement. My guys see it more as a fight to help reshape the debate and protect future generations from creeping socialism and unimaginable debt. One of my people puts it better: “There’s room for lots of organizations. There’s room to focus on different races. Eric Odom’s group is more traditional. We’re a little more edgy. We use dirty words.” A large number of people in our group have military backgrounds. Whenever squabbles erupt, their catchphrase is “Remember, guys, the enemy is to the left.” Then their eyes literally drift to the left.
Here’s a good example of why some Tea Party members aren’t as stupid as you may think: They know the birther argument is a loser. (That’s the theory that President Barack Obama’s missing birth certificate is the key to unlocking a vast conspiracy.) It’s no secret people think my friends are crazy; they are hypersensitive about being considered conspiracy theorists.
Truthers are equally unwelcome. (Truthers believe 9/11 was an inside job.) Before the Texas primary earlier this year Glenn Beck asked Tea Party activist and gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina whether the government had a role in bringing down the World Trade Center. Her reply was “I think some very good questions have been raised in that regard….The American people have not seen all the evidence.” The next day she told a local TV station, “The 9/11 Commission Report, you know, great sections of that are redacted, and they’re top secret. That makes us all wonder, Well, what’s happening back there? The same is true with the birth certificate thing. I think it’s healthy that people are asking questions.”
Rejecting conspiracy theories is particularly challenging for my Tea Party friends because we share a distrust of the government’s monopoly on truth. So I was especially impressed by the Tea Party’s response to Medina. Within four minutes of the radio clip being posted on HotAir.com, an e-mail circulated to members of the Ensuring Liberty board and to top bloggers Mike Flynn, Dana Loesch, Andrew Marcus and others. Here is one blogger’s response: “There needs to be a loud and resounding rejection of the truthers from the Tea Party movement. On the other hand, every time I have seen a truther show up at a Tea Party event, they have been rejected. So it’s not so much a purging as it is an official eff you. I hope most Tea Partyers get that.”
Another leading activist, working out of his home in rural Illinois, said, “This is a teachable moment.” Within hours Medina was being treated like a malignant tumor within an otherwise credible movement. At one point she had threatened to garner enough votes to surpass Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and force Governor Rick Perry into a runoff. In the end Medina picked up just 18.6 percent of the primary vote. Medina’s 18.6 percent was still enough to damage the Tea Party brand. There were suggestions about dumping the name altogether. “Now that the Tea Parties have totally fucked up their primary, ‘Tea Party’ may not be a brand worth carrying. ‘Grassroots conservative’ may be more effective,” wrote one regional Tea Party leader.
The same day, RedState.com blogger Erick Erickson wrote, “In Texas, Tea Party activists have rallied to Debra Medina, who just yesterday refused to definitely dismiss the 9/11 truther conspiracy as crackpot nonsense. If a candidate cannot do that, we cannot help that candidate. It’s that simple.”
Our candidate-interview process is pretty simple. The candidate is asked two questions:
(1) Are you a birther?
(2) Are you a truther?
If the answer is anything but “no” or “hell no,” the conversation ends right there. If the candidate answers correctly, the conversation continues, looking at viability and whether we can have a worthwhile impact. The reality of this litmus test is as patriotic as practical. Donors don’t contribute to lunatics.
Many of our friends think the print media, MSNBC and CNN are out to get them. A February New York Times article might as well have called the Tea Party a bunch of freaks. It linked the movement to the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff, Indiana Senate candidate Richard Behney (who says he’s keeping his guns ready if the 2010 election doesn’t go his way) and Lyndon LaRouche groupies. Nuts inhabit every group, of course, but most reporters aren’t paid enough to actually report.
The reality is the Tea Party as we know it will cease to exist within an election cycle. Its ideas won’t go away, but most of its leaders will. That’s because most self-appointed leaders in this world simply don’t know how to win.Mark my words: Without proper experienced guidance they will fuck it up. Rallies don’t win elections—votes do. Their egos are writing checks their organizations will never cash. In this world, anything from the Beltway is tainted. With the exception of one other person, the rest of our team is no less than 700 miles away. Therein lies the rub: Most people living in the hinterlands tend to have trouble mastering the finer points of creating and funding 501©(4) organizations and leveraging that support into targeted independent expenditures in races in which limited soft dollars can make a difference.
Tea Party members are into less sexy things than a missing birth certificate, such as the national debt and privacy. They watch Fox News and read blogs. They’re conservatives, but don’t call them Republicans. They are intense followers of bloggers such as Jim Hoft (Gateway Pundit), Andrew Marcus (Founding Bloggers), Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) and Mike Flynn (Big Government.com). BigGovernment.com was created last fall as part of Andrew Breitbart’s growing media empire.
The exciting news for me is that the organization still needs someone who can deliver a message to the masses using traditional means. Even the most forward-looking political professionals know blogging and text messaging will get you only so far. That’s where I come in. I’m part of the team prepping to deliver the Tea Party message via traditional means.
A good piece of mail gets its message across in 10 seconds. Television gives you 30 seconds, maybe. We’re playing to the reptilian brain rather than the logic centers, so we look for key words and images to leverage the intense rage and anxiety of white working-class conservatives. In other words, I talk to the same part of your brain that causes road rage. Ross Perot’s big mistake was his failure to connect his pie charts with the primordial brain. Two years after Perot’s first White House run the GOP figured this out, and thus was born the “angry white man” and with him a 54-seat swing in the House of Representatives.
The mail you’ll see from me this fall won’t have much to say about gays or the unborn. We have new foils, such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Leveraging rage about a bailout for mega-millionaires and an $800 billion “stimulus” that has barely moved unemployment below double figures is a cinch compared with explaining why Bobby and Joey’s marriage is bad for America.Designing a thank-you note from an imaginary Wall Street executive to working-class taxpayers is so much more rewarding than most other messaging campaigns. With new variable-print technology, the postcard can be personalized and won’t look as though it was printed overnight at Kinko’s.
Dear [insert name],
I received my Troubled Asset Relief Program check from you and other taxpayers and wanted to personally thank you for your money. I will now be able to keep the third car and vacation home by [insert name of nearby vacation area].
I particularly want to thank [insert name of congressman] for ensuring billionaires like me do not have to worry about petty things like mortgage payments and retirement. [insert name of congressman] has been instrumental in making sure billionaires like me are protected.
[name of Wall Street billionaire]
P.S. [insert name of our candidate] opposes runaway government spending. He will vote to protect taxpayers, not billionaires like me.
Bill Hennessy leads the St. Louis Tea Party and serves on the board of Ensuring Liberty. He has more in common with Joe the Plumber than with Mitt Romney. Hennessy will tell you he likes to stand up to bullies like Obama and congressional Democrats because he refuses to accept “their brand of happiness served up on a spoon.” He’s a new-media guru from flyover country.
In the February primary for Illinois governor, we were called to open the spigot for Tea Party candidate Adam Andrzejewski eight days before the election. Within 12 hours the blogosphere exploded with pro-Andrzejewski messaging and organizing, a new TV spot was filmed, and mail was designed. I’ve worked on hundreds of campaigns and rarely have I seen one finish with such beauty. Former Polish president Lech Walesa came to Chicago to campaign for Andrzejewski. That same day every potential primary voter in Illinois with a Polish last name received a mailer asking him or her to vote for Andrzejewski.
Jon David and Maura Flynn filmed the Andrzejewski TV spot. David is multitalented. In addition to being one of the best directors I’ve seen, he took the stage before Sarah Palin at the Nashville Tea Party convention to sing his song “American Heart,” which is like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” only better. David’s song makes you want to waterboard a terrorist and then fuck a bald eagle. Under a cherry tree, on an American flag blanket. And by the way, his name isn’t really Jon David. He uses a pseudonym because he would lose his job in Hollywood if it were known he uses his free time to play the beautiful intro ballad for Michele Bachmann speeches.
Meanwhile, Hennessy’s Twitter network exploded, as did St. Louis-based Mamalogues.com blogger Dana Loesch’s, and ATraditionalLifeLived.com blogger Michelle Moore’s. Loesch is the sweet Midwestern goth version of Laura Ingraham. At the Conservative Political Action Conference she had a constant stream of such interviewees as Phyllis Schlafly, Ann Coulter, Ken Blackwell and Newt Gingrich. She fits right in, except she doesn’t look like a troll.Moore is one tough gal. Her Twitter bio reads, “Smart Girl Politics Director of Technology & Midwest RC, Political Troublemaker, Spy. Bodybuilder. I’m not mean, you’re just a sissy.” Between Hennessy, Loesch, Moore and others—like Jim Hoft and Gina Loudon—they can reach 10,000-plus area activists in seconds. Each of these activists has separate networks of thousands of followers who can light up the state instantly. Add to it our family of friendly websites, and we’re talking nearly 10 million unique visitors a month.
Although he didn’t win the primary, Andrzejewski shot up in those eight days to finish with nearly 15 percent—less than six percentage points off Bill Brady, who won with 20 percent of the vote. Hennessy’s turf accounted for the boost. On Election Day, Andrzejewski won nine counties—his home county and other counties in the St. Louis suburbs where Hennessy and friends have reach.
Although it’s mostly uncoordinated, Andrew Breitbart is pursuing a similar mission through his new-media empire. He described himself in a 2007 interview as “Matt Drudge’s bitch,” but he’s no intern. I met him at a Dupont Circle Starbucks in early 2009, where he couldn’t shake an entourage of well-wishers. The man is intense. Angry. My one-year-old has a longer attention span. But he’s so sharp you feel smarter just being in the same room with him. The best part about Breitbart is that he has a knack for making others—whether it’s the president, the press or others in power—sound like douches.
When Breitbart gestured to the print reporters at a Tea Party event in Nashville and said, “It’s not your business model that sucks; it’s you that sucks,” he whipped Tea Party members into a frenzy unlike anything I’d ever seen. Breitbart is one of them, except smarter, better connected and angrier; compared with him, Palin is Las Vegas dinner theater. That’s why he is loved by Tea Partyers in a way Palin can never hope to be loved.
Enter James O’Keefe, Stan Dai and Joe Basel, who were arrested this past January for allegedly plotting to tamper with Democratic senator Mary Landrieu’s office in New Orleans. Their arrest touched a nerve in the Tea Party community. Put in context, they are more like Tyler Durden than G. Gordon Liddy. MSNBC called it “Watergate Jr.” Basel called it one of his weaker pranks.
They don’t seem to mind getting busted and are truly willing to take one for the team. They travel the country, causing mayhem, giving speeches and crashing with wealthy benefactors. Saul Alinsky is their hero. They are as talented at destroying liberal institutions as they are at picking up cougars. I don’t mean 30-year-old mothers; I’m talking about tired 50-year-olds. With wrinkles.
The last time I caught up with Basel he was carrying a garbage bag full of dirty laundry through the airport because he hadn’t been home in months. When fans show up to take a picture with him, he pulls out the crumpled federal bond papers that give him permission to travel. Basel, Dai and O’Keefe don’t work for the Tea Party, and some of their projects may not win Tea Party candidates more votes. But because of shared interests they’ve won the hearts of Tea Party activists and conservative cougars everywhere.
I asked Basel why he does it. “I have a storied history of fucking with the power structure,” he says. “I get a high from exposing fraudsters. I love pushing the envelope and exposing the truth.”
Basel’s wingman, Stan Dai, is equally disarming. Except Dai served as an operations officer in a Department of Defense irregular-warfare fellowship program and may or may not have trained with the Israel Defense Forces. But Dai is a 24-year-old immigrant from China—he’s not exactly Jonathan Pollard. O’Keefe doesn’t have much to say. What he lacks in social skills he makes up for in creative genius and enormous balls.
Before Election Day there will be more stings. If you are part of a large organization with a vested interest in the Obama administration’s success, be afraid.
The inner core of Tea Party consultants I work with don’t like to see their names in the news, but we do enjoy a good dark bar. Nearly all are based far from the Beltway. Imagine the rooftop deck of a D.C. steakhouse with about 40 Tea Party celebrities. It’s not the stuffy crowd that usually congregates at Morton’s. Picture Breitbart holding court with donors in one corner and fake ACORN hooker Hannah Giles in another (too young to drink legally at the time), talking with the even younger doe-eyed, homeschooled daughter of a prominent activist. Though it had been a month since Washington’s last snowfall, the rooftop deck still had piles of snow, allowing Maura Flynn to start the first-ever snowball fight inside Morton’s bar. Welcome to my Tea Party party.
We make a sport out of confusing the press. I had fake business cards printed to give to reporters. I watched a reporter walk out of a Conservative Political Action Conference reception in mid-February with a fistful of my faux business cards. Feeling a little guilty I told him not to file a story immediately because it would be guaranteed to be dead wrong. He finally published it a month later, after one of our friends charitably spent three hours with him.
At the Tea Party convention in Nashville I was photographed by The Washington Post while meeting with the inner sanctum, but the paper wasn’t able to identify us in the caption. The picture captured my chin and arm and my colleague with a mouthful of hamburger as we listened to an Andrzejewski campaign staffer explain why he knows how to run a campaign better. A local blog described him a couple of years ago as a “radically right-wing psychopath.” That was generous. In reality he’s an Allstate IT guy who should not be allowed near tequila, sharp objects or a campaign.
Causing mayhem is not limited to dealing with the press. We’ve quietly acquired Service Employees International Union shirts to wear at Tea Party rallies. For big labor, that’s like handing out TSA uniforms in Kabul. And at a rally in St. Louis this March, fake SEIU protesters joined the Tea Party protest.
Various Republican congressional leaders met for hours with our leadership and our finance team in the Richard Nixon suite at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington. Never in my career had I had a congressman look me in the eyes behind closed doors and say with such sincerity, “Give me a list of what you need me to do.” The second meeting drew 10 congressmen. There we sat, inside the Capitol Hill Club (which shares the building that houses the Republican National Committee), sharing ideas on how we can work together. The third meeting drew 17 congressmen. We’ll see help with fundraising and research from friendly members of Congress. It’s what you won’t see that’s more important. Our role is to quietly help a dozen grassroots conservative candidates win in the fall, using traditional and nontraditional means. If you don’t hear from us directly, we will have done our job.