The tea party may be in danger of losing one of its most powerful voices in Washington.
The abrupt resignation of FreedomWorks Co-Chairman and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey last month was the culmination of a monthslong battle over the group’s advocacy strategy and its gradual shift away from Capitol Hill.
As details of the internal squabble ricocheted through conservative circles this week, several prominent staffers headed for the exits amid accusations that FreedomWorks CEO Matt Kibbe was using the group’s resources to promote a book he wrote and profited from. Activists who had joined the organization when it first claimed the tea party mantel now are questioning its vision.
With Armey at the helm, FreedomWorks played a key role in pressuring House conservatives to oppose Republican leaders and legitimizing the tea party brand. But now, as Congress confronts the fiscal cliff, the group’s remaining leaders are touting a record fundraising year, brainstorming another book and making preparations to send Kibbe on a 30-city speaking tour.
Meanwhile, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, ousted lawmakers the group championed, such as Reps. David Schweikert of Arizona and Justin Amash of Michigan, from high-profile assignments on the Financial Services and Budget committees, respectively.
“It’s much more about owning their fear back in their districts than bum-rushing their offices here,” said Adam Brandon, executive vice president of FreedomWorks, explaining the group’s strategy. “If you keep focusing on the Hill, you’re going to get stuck on these leadership fights.”
Unlike other tea-party-aligned groups, FreedomWorks until recently maintained a laser-like legislative focus.
“It’s becoming more about building the email list, marketing Matt Kibbe and his book and raising money online — a nonprofit that wants to be in business to be business,” one source inside the organization said. “There’s a Cold War brewing here.”
The organization spent the past year building a massive fundraising network that delivered more than $40 million to campaigns in 2012, according to Brandon, almost double what it raised the year before. The group spent half of this year’s haul on advertisements targeting congressional candidates. The remainder, which was raised through a pair of nonprofits, was spent on rallies and, sources said, buying thousands of copies of Kibbe’s book to “manipulate the best-seller list.”
The shake-up cost FreedomWorks its top grass-roots organizer, Brendan Steinhauser, two members of his staff, and Vice President for Government Affairs Max Pappas, who also managed the group’s super PAC.
Conservative activists say the departures threaten the future of the organization.
“How are you going to be able to target a message correctly if you don’t know the community?” asked Tito Munoz, who served as a liaison to the Hispanic community as part of FreedomWorks’ “Diverse Tea” program.
The group’s four-member board of directors has yet to comment on the dispute or announce who will replace Armey, who served as co-chairman since 2003. The remaining members include Kibbe; James Burnley, a partner at the law firm Venable and a former Reagan administration transportation secretary; Thomas Knudsen of Thomas Publishing Co.; and Richard Stephenson, head of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Former EU Ambassador and White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray serves as chairman of the board for FreedomWorks Foundation.