The Tea Party's War on Itself Now Includes a Literal Armed Rebellion

Dashiell Bennett
The Atlantic Wire
The Tea Party's War on Itself Now Includes a Literal Armed Rebellion

It's been more than a month since the 2012 election was decided, but the postmortems continue, particularly for the Tea Party, which continues to have its relevance questioned after a tumultuous year. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times published Christmas Day stories about competing factions within the movement — gun-toting infights and all — and how they will fight to control its mission looking forward to 2014.

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The Post story in particular underscores how deep and bitter the division can run, even among the most devoted activists. In the middle of this year's election season, former House majority leader Dick Armey found himself at odds with fellow executives at FreedomWorks, the libertarian-leaning group they helped build and run together. Armey was the chairman, while author and activist Matt Kibbe is the president. 

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For years, the two men had created an effective partnership. But on September 10, according to the Post, Armey showed up at the FreedomWorks offices with his wife, and aide, and a unidentified man wearing a gun on his hip. The armed man escorted Kibbe and his top deputy out of the building, while Armey began suspending other staffers. 

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However, two weeks later, it was Armey who found himself forced out. A member of the board of director threw his support behind Kibbe, pledging $8 million in new donations to FreedomWorks, which expanded into a super-PAC this election cycle, if Armey resigned and the suspended workers returned to their jobs. That's a lot more money than what Politico originally reported as a spat over a book deal.

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In addition to just being plain scary — the incident happened just two weeks after a man had been shot trying to break into the Family Research Council, another conservative lobbying group — the tale of Armey and the gun-wielding suspensions also raises questions about just who is really running the Tea Party movement. FreedomWorks has long portrayed itself as a grassroots organization, yet the donation shows how it's really become a handful of wealthy individuals who are calling the shots for these groups. The man behind the pledge, Illinois millionaire Richard Stephenson, gave more than $12 million to FreedomWorks donations before this election cycle, funneling the money through two dummy corporations set up just one day apart in Tennessee.

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The Times story, meanwhile, examines how much of the Tea Party's efforts are being redirected from major nationwide issues like taxes and Obamacare, to smaller pet causes on the state or local level. Some are pushing states to nullify health care law, while others are pursuing voter fraud cases. Meanwhile, others are focusing on individual races, which can make the Tea Party a greater election headache for moderate Republicans than Democratic opponents.

The strength of the Tea Party has always worked better when directed at smaller campaigns than through national causes. And those smaller campaign are often the pet causes of the millionaires who fund their activities. Stephenson founded Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a for-profit health care company. (Kibbe and Stephenson became close after Kibbe was treated at his centers.) One of biggest issues for FreedomWorks has been the repeal of Obamacare. That's not happening any time soon, but Stephenson, FreedomWorks, and the other Tea Party activists aren't giving up; they're just trying a different path.