Tea Party Courts GOP's Evangelical Wing

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 4:27 AM PDT

If there were ever any doubt that the tea party movement was considering a merger with old-line social conservatives, this should probably clinch it:

The Tea Party Patriots (TPP) is an umbrella group claiming to represent more than 15 million tea party activists nationwide. It has a pretty focused set of core values: fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets. By design, the list doesn't say anything about abortion, gay marriage, or any other hot-button social issues. But over the weekend, TPP leaders met with members of the Council for National Policy to try to raise some money. CNP is a secretive and powerful club that has worked to make the Republican Party more socially conservative. Founded in 1981 by Tim LaHaye, the evangelical minister, political organizer, and author of the Left Behind books about the coming apocalypse, CNP's board reads like a who's who of the GOP's evangelical wing.

According to the group's 2008 IRS filings, board members include Elsa Prince, a wealthy contributor to religious right causes, particularly anti-gay marriage efforts. (She is perhaps better known as the mother of Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater.) Joining her is the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, Phyllis Schlafly, direct mail king Richard Viguerie, and Becky Norton Dunlop, the vice president for external relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation. By-invitation-only members of the group have included: Sarah Palin; the American Family Association's Don Wildmon; former FBI agent Gary Aldrich (now a TPP board member) who's famous for writing a book claiming that the Clintons hung sex toys on the White House Christmas tree; and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, the chairman of FreedomWorks.

Earlier this year, the council was reportedly concerned about the rise of the tea party movement, which it viewed as insufficiently religious. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, told Politico in March that he had to reassure the council members at their meeting in March that the tea party movement shared its values. Since then, the council seems to have decided to simply join the party rather than fight it.

In September, former disgraced Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed's new Faith and Freedom Coalition convened a convention in Washington to roll out a new "get out the vote" scheme. During the two-day meeting, Bob Reccord, CNP's executive director, moderated a chummy panel discussion of tea party activists, including Tea Party Patriots national coordinators Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler. Meckler, who often emphasizes that the tea party movement does not touch social issues because they are too divisive, told the audience that in fact, tea partiers were angry because of "this idea of separation of church and state. We're angry about the removal of God from the public square."

The comment suggested that at least the Tea Party Patriots weren't averse to joining the culture wars—at least if it meant tapping social conservatives' significant fundraising abilities. After the discussion, I asked Meckler whether TPP was going to be working more with Reed or evangelical Christians. He said no, but apparently the cozy relations between CNP and the tea party activists on display at the Faith and Freedom event were a sign of other things brewing behind the scenes.

At this weekend's meeting with CNP in Orange County, California, TPP leaders handed out a "secret" strategy memo that lays out an ambitious goal: to "renew the commitment to limited government and free markets in the hearts and minds of at least 60 percent of the American public over the next 40 years." Posted online by talk show host and one-time Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams, the memo indicates that in the short term, TPP anticipates spending $675,000 in a "get out the vote" effort before the midterm election, which includes everything from house parties to GPS-driven precinct walking lists. (Most of that money presumably comes from the $1 million anonymous donation TPP received last month and announced with great fanfare.)

Down the road, though, the group anticipates needing at least $175,000 to host a summit for newly elected leaders to inoculate them against the Trent Lotts of the world who would "co-opt" innocent freshmen congressmen and turn them into the "establishment." Lots of the money TPP is seeking would go towards—what else?—more tea party-type rallies, and, more interestingly, polling to see how well the group's social media, advertising, and other outreach efforts are working. Over the next 40 years, the bill would add up to about $100 million. Clearly TPP hopes that people like Prince and other deep-pocketed members of the council will be interested in picking up the tab. 

Whether the council decided to buy into the plan is anyone's guess. Neither TPP's Jenny Beth Martin or CNP's Reccord returned calls seeking further information. But the fact that TPP was even at the meeting at all suggests that TPP's top leadership don't see a conflict in advancing their agenda with money from people who have underwritten the very culture wars that the tea party movement has long claimed to eschew.

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