As Matea Gold points out in her report, this makes Tea Party PACS somewhat similar to other PACs in the political arena — but “business as usual” isn’t the point of the Tea Party, either. In the Washington Post analysis of contributions and expenditures from Tea Party-related PACs, less than half of the intake goes to candidates or independent expenditures on races and issues. Most of the money ends up funding the organizations and their consultants:
Out of the $37.5 million spent so far by the PACs of six major tea party organizations, less than $7 million has been devoted to directly helping candidates, according to the analysis, which was based on campaign finance data provided by the Sunlight Foundation. …
Roughly half of the money — nearly $18 million — has gone to pay for fundraising and direct mail, largely provided by Washington-area firms. Meanwhile, tea party leaders and their family members have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees, while their groups have doled out large sums for airfare, a retirement plan and even interior decorating. …
Three well-known groups — the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express and the Madison Project — have spent 5 percent or less of their money directly on election-related activity during this election cycle. Two other prominent tea party groups, the Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks, have devoted about 40 percent of their money to direct candidate support such as ads and yard signs.
On average, super PACs had spent 64 percent of their funds on directly helping candidates by roughly this stage in the 2012 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission data.
None of this is illegal, nor is it terribly unusual in the industry. There are, though, a few questionable relationships between PAC officials and vendors. Tea Party Patriots finance director Richard Norman has direct-mail firms that got $2.7 million worth of business from the PAC for fundraising campaigns. Senate Conservatives Fund has paid almost $300,000 to vendors owned by its executive director, Matt Hoskins. Gold challenged Tea Party Express chief Sal Russo in particular, who responded that the figures don’t tell the whole story:
The Tea Party Express, a PAC run out of Sacramento by longtime Republican consultant Sal Russo, has paid Russo’s firm $2.75 million since the beginning of 2013, while donating just $45,000 to candidates and spending less than $162,000 on ads and bus tours supporting their election.
Russo said that figure was misleading because most of the payments to his firm were reimbursements for the cost of staffing the elaborate bus tours and rallies that the group holds around the country.
“Everything goes on our credit card,” he said. “Sometimes there’s up to 45 people that we’ve got to feed and house.”
Those activities, while not explicit political expenditures, give a bigger return than expensive television ads, Russo said.
Gold suggests that this is just the natural metamorphosis from grassroots to professional character in the Tea Party. Fundraising costs money, and those costs do tend to be front-loaded in cycles, too. Still, even for this early in the cycle the balance seems far off from what most Tea Party activists would have in mind for their contributions.
Jennifer Rubin expresses outrage over the “charlatans” exposed by the report:
Republicans who have been targeted as sell-outs by these groups have every right to be infuriated. They’ve been used to generate huge money – for the PAC leaders. It is good business to harangue mainstream Republicans, fundraise off of the “sell outs” and then reap the rewards. The notion that these groups are helping the GOP or the country is preposterous. A senior GOP aide told Right Turn. “It seems pretty clear that these so-called Tea Party leaders are more interested in lining their own pockets than living by the values and principles of the millions of Americans who have donated their hard-earned dollars to support the conservative cause.” …
It will be interesting to see if rabid rightwing blogs and high-powered talk show hosts which often team up with these groups – carrying their message, giving free media time, interviewing the groups’ leaders, amplifying their attacks against incumbent Republicans — express outrage and call for an end to the fleecing of donors. After all, it is their readers and listeners who have been ripped off. And will Jim DeMint, who founded the Senate Conservatives Fund and now heads the Heritage Foundation also denounce these practices? Silence would speak volumes.
In order for the Tea Party to have an impact on politics, it had to organize and do so professionally, and that organization flowed up from its grassroots beginnings. That process was always going to be bumpy, but it’s time to get the same kind of accountability from these groups that they demand from government and elected officials. It’s the donors who are owed that accountability, and perhaps should approach groups with a little more scrutiny in the future.
However, just because some of these groups may (or may not) have “fleeced” donors doesn’t make their political agenda incorrect, either. It just means that the Tea Party may need to go a little Tea Party on their own “establishment.” Let’s see if the Tea Party movement can police itself.