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Who’s picking up the tab for the tea party?

The tea party movement may have genuine grassroots. But just beneath the surface are professional fund-raisers, foundations, and political action committees – some of which have been around for years – pushing a conservative-libertarian agenda.

By Staff Writer / September 19, 2010

Demonstrators carry signs during a march by supporters of the conservative tea party movement in Washington on September 12, 2010. Several thousand people gathered for the march from the Washington Monument to the US Capitol.



Love ‘em or hate ‘em, tea party gatherings are the grassroots real deal. Organic, earnest groundswells of populist sentiment and full-throated political expression that have upset the political establishment left and right. Effective too, as they beat mainstream candidates from Delaware to Nevada to Alaska.

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But just beneath the surface are professional fund-raisers, foundations, and political action committees – some of which have been around for years – pushing an agenda that neatly matches the conservative/libertarian aims of most tea partyers.

You can tell its effectiveness by the rhetoric of the opposition from across the political spectrum.

In Pictures: Tea Parties

Karl Rove (initially, at least) dissing tea party favorite Christine O’Donnell in her upset win in Delaware’s Republican senate primary. President Obama indirectly criticizing the insurgency’s well-funded lobbying in speeches to the Democratic faithful warning of the impact of the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision easing restrictions on how corporations may influence federal elections.

Changes in campaign finance law and the aims of the tea party movement converge in a mutually-supportive way.

Specifically, the tea party – particularly as it fights government spending and taxation under Obama and the Democratically-controlled Congress – is the sometimes-raucous face of traditional limited government lobbying. In return, the movement’s efforts get significant financial backing from those lobbying organizations, which in turn are supported by conservative foundations and business interests.

The Koch brothers

For example, in a recent investigative report in the New Yorker magazine, Jane Mayer details the links between billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch and the tea party movement. She writes:

"By giving money to 'educate,' fund, and organize Tea Party protesters, they have helped turn their private agenda into a mass movement. Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist and a historian, who once worked at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a Dallas-based think tank that the Kochs fund, said, 'The problem with the whole libertarian movement is that it’s been all chiefs and no Indians. There haven’t been any actual people, like voters, who [care] about it. So the problem for the Kochs has been trying to create a movement.' With the emergence of the Tea Party, he said, 'everyone suddenly sees that for the first time there are Indians out there – people who can provide real ideological power.' The Kochs, he said, are 'trying to shape and control and channel the populist uprising into their own policies.'"