Tea Party activists aren’t born — they’re made. Finished and partially-finished products gathered at the 18,500-seat American Airlines Center in Dallas the last week of July, filling the stadium more than halfway, clutching signs for Senate candidate Ted Cruz and cheering as conservative leaders — Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, the media figures Dana Loesch and Glenn Beck — took the stage to Rush or AC/DC. They crowded the food areas of the stadium, buying beers and hot dogs. The four huge screens showed the trailer for Atlas Shrugged, Part 2: Either-Or.
But school came first. For the first hour and a half of FreePAC, FreedomWorks’ convention to coincide with the end of Cruz’s runoff race against David Dewhurst and Glenn Beck’s Restoring Love gathering, the audience listened to a series of presentations on basic campaign tactics like putting up yard signs and doing phone banking.
Brendan Steinhauser, the group’s director of federal and state campaigns, got on stage to explain “sign blitzing” — clustering signs in public places as opposed to just setting one or two up on a private yard.
“FreedomWorks can supply door hangers, palm cards, bumper stickers and walking maps for your district,” the four screens high above Steinhauser’s head read.
“We try to be a good service center and provide good customer service,” Steinhauser told the crowd with a hint of Texas drawl. They listened attentively to him and to other professionals, as well as a couple of star activists the FreedomWorks team has groomed in key races. The attendees, some of whom had come from as far as Canada, would go on a few days later to help push Cruz, formerly a long shot and who never matched his opponent’s fundraising, into an easy win a few days later over establishment favorite Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst.
FreedomWorks has been around in its current form since 2004; before then it was called Citizens for a Sound Economy and funded by the Koch brothers, the billionaire duo who have backed conservative and libertarian causes for decades, and have emerged in the Obama Administration as a hub of conservative money. The group, which split with the Kochs in 2004 after the donors had a falling out with its founder, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, had long tried to drum up the kind of grassroots anti-spending fervor that emerged with a fury in the summer of 2010. Since then group has grown rapidly, deploying staffers to some races and using a Super PAC to get involved in others.
And while the Tea Party was dogged at its start by an allegation that it was an astroturf product of FreedomWorks, that’s never really been true: FreedomWorks served as a midwife at the Tea Party’s birth, and has now devoted itself to replicating the early Tea Party activists. The group and its allies aren’t funding those activists, though; they’re teaching them.
FreedomWorks isn’t just focused on endorsing candidates and injecting money into their races. They’re obsessed with the training of activists. Director Matt Kibbe will only approve spending on a race, Steinhauser said, if the goals include for recruiting a specific number of activists. FreedomWorks, and groups like American Majority that also focus on churning out trained volunteers, have completed the transformation of the Tea Party from groups of disenchanted people gathering in each other’s living rooms — perhaps the movement’s shortest phase — to a machine that produces skilled activists and most importantly, wins races. A Tea Party upset is no longer a surprise, and amateurs are rapidly going pro.
“The way that the RNC or the Republican Party approaches activists is so different from what we do,” said Brendan Steinhauser in an interview with BuzzFeed after the FreePAC rally. Steinhauser looked weary but talked fast, energized by the rally.
“They’re our customers,” he said. “It’s bottom up. I come out and tell you whatever I want to tell you, but you’ve got to buy into this, you’ve got to find value in the training.”
Steinhauser travels the country frequently, stopping in at states where there’s an important campaign going on, but also traveling to swing states and holding training sessions for people interested in getting involved in campaigns. Matt Kibbe, FreedomWorks’ president, describes the sessions as “constant” and estimates that the group holds two or three every week. According to press secretary Jackie Bodnar, the group estimates 105 sessions in the past year. The sessions are held free of charge; FreedomWorks makes plenty of money from donations, from companies like Friess Associates and Crow Holdings.
“There was a time when the new activists didn’t know how to do get-out-the-vote so we did a lot of training on that,” Kibbe said. “As they get more sophisticated, they get better at things than we are.”
The activists, even when not yet schooled in the ways of FreedomWorks, are apt students. An audience member from New Jersey asked how best to go door-to-door in his heavily Democratic district; another wondered how to take advantage of FreedomWorks’ resources even in local races, for school board or county commission.
Matthew Graham, 30, a programmer from Winnipeg, Canada holding a Slurpee, said he’d come down to FreePAC to learn how to get a Tea Party going in his own country.
“I’m trying to figure out how to bring this understanding of conservatism to Canada,” Graham said. “It’s a different culture there.” Graham tried to connect with a Tea Party group in Toronto, but it didn’t work out.
The best ones become more visible, like Indiana activist Greg Fettig or Texas’ Maggie Wright, who both spoke at FreePAC. Both were involved with successful FreedomWorks races.
But their relative sophistication is coming directly via FreedomWorks and other groups that have seized the opportunity to make themselves the producers, and the activists their customers. Part of the presentation in Dallas involved “walking technology” — the group has a smartphone app that has put the old-fashioned process of examining voter rolls and picking out which doors to knock into the hands of whoever has an iPhone. There’s also a social network, Freedom Connector.
“Our relationship with the activists and donors is that we’re a service center,” Steinhauser said. “You’re an investor or you’re a customer, and we’re the salesmen and the production line.”
Those aren’t the words of a protester, and FreedomWorks — and other similar groups — are fine with that.
“Rallying’s nice but protesting changes nothing, so what’s next?” asked Ned Ryun, the director of American Majority, a group that does similar activist training. Like FreedomWorks, American Majority has been around since before the Tea Party’s rise, but latched on when the whole thing began.
Protesting, Ryun said, is “all very nice, but at the end of the day it’s just street theater, and street theater does not win elections.”
Kibbe and the team at FreedomWorks are aware of that, and view the shift as a tactical change prompted by the wishes of Tea Partiers themselves.
“Our view is that to sustain a grassroots movement it’s going to have to by necessity evolve,” Kibbe said. “If we were still doing marches on the Mall, the community would be exhausted.”
Original Tea Partiers, who remember the days mass rallies and colonial outfits, say they don’t miss that chaotic moment. The newer, more efficient movement fits their needs.
“I don’t look at it as institutionalization, I look at it as getting the job done,” said Amy Kremer of Tea Party Express. “All that matters is that Ted Cruz is victorious. All that matters in November is that we take the White House and the Senate.”
For Keli Carender, a Seattle woman sometimes described as the first Tea Party activist in the country, the stakes have changed, and it’s necessary to equip new activists with skills.
“In 2009 it was necessary for us to get out and voice our disapproval of the healthcare bill,” Carender said. “Now we understand that to really make changes we have to take incumbents out – we know we need to get involved in legislation.”
She takes no issue with groups that have codified the Tea Party because she’s in one — as a Tea Party Patriots official, she trains activists herself.
“We call ourselves a support team,” she said.
For a movement that has prided itself for the three years of its lifespan on being anti-establishment, the Tea Party — thanks to the slick abilities and organization of groups like FreedomWorks — is becoming its own establishment, kind of a counter-establishment on the right.
“It’s all about the credibility too – because we take on the party, that gives us this credibility,” Brendan Steinhauser said, adding that “We’re not afraid to bloody up their noses.”
FreedomWorks is skillful in the way it flouts movement conservative doctrine. Staffers go so far as to compare their work to community organizing, Barack Obama’s first job and a common conservative bogeyman.
“We’re out-Saul Alinskying the left,” Matt Kibbe, the group’s director in a radio interview in Dallas the day of FreePAC. Steinhauser also quoted Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals in his speech: “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.”
But FreePAC looked as establishment as anything else in the political world, and in fact most closely resembled a NFL game (the pounding rock music) or a concert. Glenn Beck, with whom FreedomWorks has a by-all-accounts lucrative business partnership (neither Steinhauser nor Kibbe would specify the amount of money involved in the deal — they help sponsor his show — though they say Beck isn’t paid to speak at their events), is no longer a revolutionary figure, and the novelty has worn off of Jim DeMint and Rand Paul.
This is the new Tea Party: staid, polished, and scripted. It sees itself as bottom-up, though the activists learn from professionals, and it’s become accustomed to success. The marching-on-Washington phase is officially over, to nearly everyone’s relief.
As goes FreedomWorks, so goes the Tea Party. Next on the group’s plate is Freedom U, its first attempt at competing in the think tank world.
“If you think of us as a business in this market, we need to grab some of that market share,” Steinhauser said. “And you notice Heritage Foundation now has a c4, they have a grassroots thing that they’re trying to do. They don’t understand what we do. They’re good guys but they’re different, they’ll never get what we do.”
Think tanks “are boring,” he said. “They have good information. But now if we can start dong the think tank stuff more and more especially with Freedom U and that kind of stuff, they become less relevant and we become more relevant.”