Cedar Falls Organizer Miffed at Campaigns Trying to 'Hijack' Tea Party
At least two candidates have hired local tea party leaders to reach out to their fellow conservative activists.
With just two weeks until the Iowa caucuses, GOP presidential campaigns have stepped up efforts to snatch the still-divided Tea Party vote, hiring key Tea Party activists to lure support from local chapters.
The move has at least one local Tea Party organizer miffed, but others say the hirings are a smart move.
"I know that if you’re trying to win a campaign, you have to do everything you can do to win," said Cedar Valley Tea Party organizer Judd Saul, who recently endorsed Rick Santorum. "But it feels like another attempted hijacking of the Tea Party."
Saul has watched as Tea Party leaders in early voting states have been scooped up by candidates, especially Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann.
Charlie Gruschow, also referred to as "Tea Party Charlie," is both a local Tea Party leader and now a paid member of Gingrich's Iowa campaign staff. He said he sees no conflict of interest between the two.
"I speak only for myself and not on behalf of the entire Tea Party movement," he said.
Gruschow, who founded the Des Moines Tea Party two years ago and later co-founded the Tea Party of America, said he had been a Herman Cain supporter and volunteered with that campaign.
He said that after Cain resigned from the race, both Bachmann and Santorum tried to recruit him to help woo other Tea Partiers, but he wasn't interested. He didn't sign on with the Gingrich campaign until after deciding to support him, he said.
Gingrich's campaign recruited Gruschow to be a senior political adviser, and also brought on April Linder as an Iowa field representative. Linder was previously the director of communications/logistics at the Iowa Tea Party.
Bachmann hired Ryan Rhodes, chairman of the Iowa Tea Party, as Tea Party outreach director. As a founder of the Tea Party Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Tea Party is a base she could rightfully have expected to claim, but Tea Party support continues to be divided.
Iowa isn’t the only place Gingrich and Bachmann are reaching out to the tea party. They have waged a public battle for Tea Party support in South Carolina and Gingrich made a key tea party hire in New Hampshire, both early voting states.
Bachmann’s campaign did not return calls and emails asking for comment last week. The Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Bachmann, Rick Perry and Santorum campaigns did not reply to emails asking for comment. The Gingrich campaign did not comment beyond what Gruschow said.
In Iowa, the Tea Party has mostly refrained from endorsing anyone, they say to keep the movement more pure. This is in contrast to other states, University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said. That's another reason hiring key Tea Party people can be important for campaigns in Iowa.
"One of the reasons campaigns might want those associations is to get those Tea Partiers, and especially for Gingrich, he wants to bring those people over,” he said.
Gingrich might have an image problem with some local Tea Party members. At a straw poll organized by the Cedar Valley Tea Party on Dec. 13, of the 60 who cast their vote, only five voted for Gingrich, putting him in third place behind Paul and Santorum. Nationally, he seems to be doing much better, with CNN reporting Gingrich won a Tea Party Patriots straw poll of 23,000 voters, but it’s the vote in Iowa that is consuming candidates' time and efforts right now.
Tea Party members are viewed as an especially motivated slice of the Republican party, and it takes motivation to commit to caucusing on a cold night in January.
"They are really at crunch time. If it means paying a little money to get people on the ground, they might have to do that," Hagle said of Gingrich campaign.
One reason to hire local leaders is that the Tea Party is not easily nailed down. Saul said there are factions meeting in small towns across the state, many of whom don’t have websites or public listings. Only an insider would even know some of them exist, he said.
“The campaigns weren’t getting anywhere because they didn’t know who to contact,” he said.
At the Cedar Falls Tea Party straw poll, some said they didn't think it was a bad idea for the campaigns to reach out to them by hiring coordinators.
"I think the more communication the public has with candidates the better we all are," Bob McCabe, of Waterloo said.
Carol Allard, of rural Black Hawk County, however, said she wouldn't be easily swayed, no matter who was representing a candidate.
"I won't be pushed into voting for anyone," she said.
Still, if someone was trying to convince her, it might be better coming from someone she already knows, like the local Tea Party activists who have been hired by campaigns.
"Someone from out of state - I won't listen to them at all," she said.