When dozens of raucous conservative activists Monday stormed the National Republican Senatorial Committee and demanded the GOP campaign arm stay out of the Utah Senate race, it looked like the tea party mob was at it again.
But underneath the chanting and handmade signs was a carefully orchestrated educational event, an effort by FreedomWorks to incorporate technical dominance and political savvy into a grass-roots movement built on passion and theatrics.
As a few dozen activists prepared to march to the NRSC headquarters to order the committee to end financial support for Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, a FreedomWorks leader turned it into a teachable moment, asking: “Who has Twitter on their phone?”
“This is a really good opportunity to tweet,” she said. “The hashtag is ‘NRSCswarm.’”
The activists were energized — fresh off a two-day “boot camp” organized by FreedomWorks to teach grass-roots conservatives how to advance their agenda on the debt ceiling, health care and environmental regulations. It was capped off with a message to establishment Republicans: Stay out of our backyard.
FreedomWorks, a nearly 20-year-old grass-roots advocacy organization led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), will take on a deeper and more sophisticated role in the 2012 elections than ever before. The organization has its eyes on 15 Senate seats, including Utah, and will target both Democrats and Republicans. The group aims to raise $10 million through a new super political action committee called FreedomWorks for America.
It is also establishing an 18-member debt panel to counter President Barack Obama’s bipartisan fiscal commission, which offered recommendations on how to reduce the federal deficit in late 2010.
“We’re not a protest movement anymore,” said Matt Kibbe, the group’s president. “It is a protest movement morphed into a get-out-the-vote movement. We are here to think nationally but act locally.”
The new PAC is part of that strategy. FreedomWorks for America can raise and spend unlimited sums of money from corporations, associations and individuals for independent expenditures. The group is barred from making direct contributions to campaigns, but that has never been FreedomWorks’ focus.
FreedomWorks will use the super PAC to let activists anywhere “help their brothers out” in other states. But that principle is what Washington Republicans find most concerning. Some Republicans grumbled about the group’s antics Monday, arguing that kind of thinking might have won primaries in 2010 but ultimately cost the party the Delaware Senate seat and caused an ugly recount in Alaska.
An NRSC spokesman pointed out that Hatch is the committee’s vice chairman and has the support of the FreedomWorks foundation co-chairman.
FreedomWorks has made defeating Hatch a top priority in 2012 and is already mobilizing activists on the ground around the opportunity to pick up another seat for their wing of the Republican Party. It is clear the group has a strategy: getting anti-Hatch activists elected in local caucuses so they can influence the state convention next year. That’s how conservatives ousted then-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), recognized as one of the first electoral casualties of the tea party movement.
The group complains that Hatch, a six-term Republican known as a Democratic deal-maker, is too liberal, and it criticizes his votes for the Troubled Asset Relief Program and to raise the debt ceiling.
FreedomWorks coordinates closely with the Republican Study Committee, an influential caucus of conservative House lawmakers, and will be visited today by two of its favorite GOP Senators: Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee, who it helped to elect in Utah after Bennett lost at the convention.
“This is one group that’s known to actually have activists,” RSC Executive Director Paul Teller said. “If you actually need bodies to do things, many of the other groups cannot produce them.”
The NRSC policy is to back incumbents in primaries, period. But with FreedomWorks looking at the primary against Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar (R) as an opportunity for a Libertarian-leaning candidate, the NRSC isn’t likely to cozy up with the activists anytime soon. When it comes to Senate endorsements, FreedomWorks will continue to be stingy, Kibbe said.
Kibbe, whose trademark sideburns seem to creep closer and closer to his lips everyday, has developed a following among the activists. Ann Sullivan, who came to this weekend’s training from North Carolina, wears a T-shirt emblazoned with his face above the slogan, “Chops you can believe in.”
“I use the shirt as a way to talk to people,” said Sullivan, secretary of the Wayne County Republican Party in North Carolina. “I like my propaganda.”
As activists savored barbecue during a lunch break Sunday between sessions on the 2012 targets and the math behind effective campaigning, staffers eyed the FreedomWorks Facebook page. With about 796,000 “likes,” the group was about 10,000 supporters ahead of its sometime-rival the Tea Party Patriots, another national tea party group.
“How far ahead of TPP are we?” one staffer asked. “10,000? That’s something like awesome. I think 1 million is feasible by August.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.