Tea party activists have long disputed liberal charges that their movement is simply the product of a corporate Astroturf campaign designed to attack President Obama. For the most part, they've been right. But a new effort to recruit members and gather voter data by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers, may serve to revive those old claims.
In recent weeks, according to the Florida-based conservative news outlet Sunshine State News, AFP has been quietly hiring tea party leaders to serve as "field coordinators" in Florida, leading up to Tuesday's GOP primary and beyond, reportedly paying them $30,000 each to help beef up AFP's membership. AFP has also offered tea party groups $2 for every new AFP member their volunteers sign up at Florida polling stations on Tuesday. An email from the West Orlando Tea Party organizers to its members explains:
Americans For Prosperity has offered many local tea party groups an opportunity to collect a few dollar$ for our cause and it revolves around the January 31st primary. Anyone who volunteers from our group will net our WOTP group $2 for every person they "sign up" for AFP which involves getting the name, address, and email of local voters at local polling stations that day. They will provide us with T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other handouts to recruit like minded conservatives.
(The person answering the contact phone number for the West Orlando Tea Party hung up when I called Monday to inquire about the AFP offer.)
The AFP effort in Florida is being spearheaded by Slade O'Brien, AFP's Florida director. O'Brien is a political consultant whose former* firm, Florida Strategies Group, specialized in Astroturf campaigns and "grass-tops lobbying." His clients have included big drug companies, Home Depot, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and other big business groups. O'Brien's ties to the Kochs go back to at least the late 1990s, when he served as the Florida director for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a forerunner to Americans for Prosperity.
The bounty-hunting aspect of AFP's membership drive and its focus on recruiting tea party activists to do the groundwork has rankled some of the state's grassroots conservative activists, who tend to prize their independence. Activists have expressed concerns about what AFP plans to do with the information it collects, which they believe may be sold to political campaigns for years to come. AFP's membership drive certainly looks like a concrete expression of the Koch brothers stated intention to steer more than $200 million to conservative groups ahead of the fall presidential election. And the oil company magnates have been working for nearly two years on creating a massive conservative voter database dubbed "Themis" to help influence elections and get out the conservative vote in various campaigns. The Florida AFP membership drive would definitely fit with those plans.
O'Brien deferred questions about Themis to the AFP national office, which didn't return a call for comment. But O'Brien defended the tea party outreach effort. He says it's simply an effort to bolster AFP's membership rolls, and one that will mutually benefit like-minded "patriot" groups and also "puts money back into heart and soul of the movement." O'Brien says that none of the voter data collected by the volunteers will be sold.
Even so, the tea partiers on the ground may not be so amenable to serving as AFP's foot soldiers. Even the former Florida field coordinator for AFP, Apryl Marie Fogel, has criticized the initiative. "Incentivizing people with money is no different than what ACORN or other groups are doing," she told Sunshine State News, comparing the process to "Astroturf." "This is the opposite of what AFP stands for."
O'Brien disagrees. "There’s not a single tea party leader who has approached me and said, 'I think this is a bad idea.'"
* Correction: O'Brien left his firm when he became AFP's Florida director. The original version of this post indicated he was still with the company. We regret the error.