The Tea Party in South Dakota hasn't had much success at the ballot box. In this year's Republican primary, neither Lora Hubbel nor Stace Nelson, the candidates around whom South Dakota's revolution-reënactors most visibly rallied, broke 20% against frontrunners whom they would have us believe are "Republicans in Name Only." The hard right insurgents fielded only a handful of candidates to challenge sitting legislators in the primary, and none of them upset any incumbents. Like the Libertarians with whom they ideologically overlap, South Dakota's Tea Partiers are better described as a carriers of a vague label than organizers of a serious fundraising and vote-getting movement.
Nationally, the folks who adopt that vague label get more press but little more real electoral success. Some observers and hopeful candidates point to David Brat's upset of Eric Cantor as affirmation of Tea Party outrage and ballot-winning power, but the Tea Party as an organization had very little to do with Brat's primary win. Conservative writer Michael Lotfi says national Tea Party groups have given little practical help to candidates like Brat and are jumping on his bandwagon just to pad their pockets:
In fact, all of these groups have been collecting millions in donations, and they have not put a single dime into many winnable races.
According to a Washington Post report, the six largest national Tea Party groups have spent more than $37.5 million on the mid-terms so far. However, only $7 million of the spent donations have actually gone directly to candidates. Where did the other $30.5 million go? Well, it goes directly into their family members’ pockets for ‘consulting fees’, giving themselves lucrative benefit packages, paying themselves $272k/year salaries, and even spending $52k in interior decorating fees for one of their fancy Capitol Hill town-homes. How fiscally conservative of them [Michael Lotfi, "Dear Tea Party, On Cantor's Loss—You Didn't Build That," BenSwann.com, 2014.06.11].
Lotfi notes that while super-PACs give about 60% of their money directly to candidates, Tea-flavored Senate Conservatives Fund (you know, the guys who vowed to elect an alternative to Mike Rounds in the SDGOP primary, then ignored the four eager and willing alternatives) and FreedomWorks have spent 40% of their cash on candidates. Lotfi says the Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Express, and Madison Project have spent 5% or less on candidates.
Failing to invest real money in real campaigns makes it look as if these conservative organizations don't really want to win and effect real policy change. They just want the attention and dollars uniquely available to those who adopt a radical right-wing persona:
If you want money and attention, you could do worse than become a conservative provocateur. Right-wing resentment—stoked by impossible promises and harnessed through donations—built a fortune for Glenn Beck, a political career for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and a burgeoning media empire for the late Andrew Breitbart.
Even if you think these lawmakers and activists are sincere—and I do—it’s hard not to see the whole operation as a perpetual swindle. Take the Affordable Care Act. With the re-election of President Obama, odds of repeal were slim-to-none. But rather than abandon the call for Obamacare repeal, conservative groups—and their allies in Congress—pushed further. Not because they thought it could happen, but because it was lucrative. As Robert Costa described for National Review at the time, “Business has boomed since the push to defund Obamacare caught on. Conservative activists are lighting up social media, donations are pouring in, and e-mail lists are growing” [Jamelle Bouie, "The GOP's Grifter Problem," Slate, 2014.05].
We've seen this faux-right grifterism in South Dakota. Annette Bosworth adopted a fake conservative Christian persona to access campaign donations to subsidize her family. Washington D.C. direct-mail firm Base Connect adopted Bosworth as the latest in its series of electorally doomed but PR-sparkly toys to elicit donations from vulnerable retirees. Bosworth has reported over $1.6 million in campaign contributions so far. Base Connect, its partners, and other entities associated with her direct mail scheme have so far collected over 75% of that money, $1.25 million. Bosworth's amended first-quarter FEC report shows that she is still in dutch to her direct mailers for another $400K.
In other words, every penny so far documented that people sent Bosworth to fight for Tea Party principles really goes to clever marketers sending scary letters about ObamaCare. (The money she'll continue to raise will cover the $320 in Starbucks and $331 in Hy-Vee groceries Annette paid for with the campaign credit card while winning 5.75% of the GOP vote.)
Lotfi says donors should avoid Tea Party profiteers by giving their money to local groups. 95.8% of Bosworth's itemized donors came from out of state. In other words, they didn't know Annette Bosworth, and they weren't watching South Dakota press coverage of her train-wreck campaign. They just believed the scary letters that keep Base Connect in business. They wasted $1.6 million dollars and failed to make a political difference.
The Tea Party in South Dakota and elsewhere could be more successful. Dedicated conservatives could ally with liberals like me and populists like Rick Weiland to wage war against crony capitalism and other real threats to our liberty. They could turn off talk radio and focus on bringing neighbors together to cooperate in real local campaigns on real local issues.
But Tea Party Incorporated can't follow that business model. Conservative grifters like the Tea Party Express, Base Connect, and Annette Bosworth need donors to remain scared and isolated, to cling to their pre-fabricated mottoes, and to write their checks to profit centers with no real plan for positive political change.