Is There a Battle Brewing for the Soul of the GOP?

Guy Benson

11/14/2010 12:51:19 AM - Guy Benson

A heated war of words has broken out between two conservative groups over conflicting GOP freshmen orientation events scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Leaders of the Tea Party Patriots are accusing establishment Republicans of colluding with the Claremont institute to indoctrinate and corrupt new GOP Congressional representatives. Claremont Institute officials flatly deny the allegation, asserting that they merely agreed to sponsor an existing conference organized by incoming Republican freshmen on behalf of their colleagues.

Early planning for the Claremont-sponsored event, which will take place at the Capitol Hill Club, was informally orchestrated by a cadre of freshmen-to-be, hailing from districts considered to be safely Republican. The group included Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Mike Pompeo of Kansas, and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who is also a member of the House GOP’s transition team.

The Tea Party Patriots (TPP) meeting was originally slated to offer workshops on the Constitution and limited government. It was also to include a discussion coordinated by another group, featuring former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese, outgoing Rep. John Shadegg, and Republican Senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn. When TPP, a Georgia-based grassroots organization, caught wind of the rival event, they sent out an email to tens of thousands of supporters claiming that “DC insiders, the RNC, and lobbyists” were trying to “steal our new members of Congress.” They also worried that another event would undermine new member turnout at their conference, into which they had poured substantial resources. For example, the group had already booked travel arrangements to Washington for 170 state-level TPP leaders from across the country.

The email blast encouraged activists nationwide to call and e-mail GOP freshmen and pressure them to eschew the Capitol Hill Club summit in favor of TPP's grassroots event. To that end, the email contained personal cell phone numbers and email addresses of dozens of incoming members. Many of these numbers and accounts have been since shut down due to overwhelming, and sometimes harassing, feedback.

This startling privacy breach prompted a 501(c)(3) organization called Constitutional Congress, which was responsible for the Shadegg-Meese-DeMint panel, to issue a statement distancing itself from the Tea Party Patriots. Townhall has been provided with the email, which repeatedly states that TPP's Sunday program - including the DeMint panel – is entirely “independent” from the Tea Party Patriots. It also condemns the TPP’s decision to publish new GOP members’ personal contact information. Tea Party Patriots, for its part, has apologized for the move and has asked supporters to cease and desist communications.

The central question of the spat -- which has become increasingly acrimonious over the past 48 hours -- is whether the Claremont event was arranged after the Tea Party Patriots’ conference was announced, and if it was done so in order to “push the tea party aside.” TPP leaders made clear their position in their mass email:

"Several days after we announced our Freshman Orientation another organization, Claremont Institute, announced that they were having one too, on the same day, at the same time. They are apparently trying to make sure that instead of sitting with grassroots tea party leaders from around the country, the lobbyists and consultants can sink their claws into the freshmen, and begin to ‘teach them’ the ways of DC.”

The missive names Republican lobbyist and former RNC aide Tim Powers as a key player in organizing the Capitol Hill Club event, labeling him a “quintessential DC insider.” Powers bristled at the characterization, and said his connection to the Sunday summit is limited and came about based on his own personal history – not a hidden agenda to co-opt new members into the Beltway establishment fold, as the TPP email suggested:

“I helped organize the big Republican freshmen orientation in 1994. At the time, I was certain it would be the only time in my lifetime that I would see a freshmen class of that magnitude. Then this year happened,” Powers said. “Several of the new Congressmen started planning an informal get-together for their class the day after the election. Eventually, they asked for my help, since I helped produce something like it in the past. That’s when I got in touch with Claremont and asked if they’d like to sponsor the event, which they did.”

Powers said former Reagan Education Secretary and Salem radio talk show host Bill Bennett – a Claremont Senior Fellow – offered to lead the discussion. “This event was in the works for days before Claremont came on board,” he explained, before criticizing Tea Party Patriots for pushing a divisive narrative. “Some of [TPP’s] tactics have been nothing short of political thuggery. It’s the sort of thing we’ve criticized the Left over for years, and it has no place in conservative politics,” Powers said.

Both sides appear to present valid arguments and timelines, which are not necessarily contradictory on some crucial points. The Tea Party Patriots are correct to say that the finalized, Claremont-sponsored meeting was officially announced days after the grassroots summit was made public. Organizers of the Claremont gathering are also right to point out that their internal planning stages were underway well before the TPP announcement. Emails obtained by Townhall, which are time-stamped roughly 12 hours after polls closed on Election Day, confirm that plans for a freshmen event (which would later come to be sponsored by Claremont) were afoot in the immediate aftermath of the midterm election. This suggests that any resulting overlap with another group was coincidental, and not a calculated disruption.

One disconnect that remains, however, surrounds TPP’s contention that its organizers reached out to Claremont Institute officials to suggest combining the two events -- an offer they say was rebuffed. “In a gesture of goodwill, we offered to combine events. We were summarily and, we thought rudely, dismissed by Claremont,” their email stated. In a follow-up interview, TPP co-founder Mark Meckler said that despite his organization’s frustration over the other group’s intransigence, he still thinks highly of the Claremont Institute. “They are great people and are great defenders of the Constitution, and have been doing important work for years. They’re an iconic organization within the conservative movement,” he said. Even so, he insisted that elements at the “highest level” of Claremont did, in fact, squash the proposed collaboration.

Claremont Institute President Brian Kennedy categorically denied that he was ever contacted by TPP about combining events, and said any suggestion that he rejected such a plan, let alone rudely, was untrue. “I did not receive a single phone call, email, or contact about this from any of [the Tea Party Patriots],” he said. Sources in the TPP camp suggested that perhaps a miscommunication is responsible for the confusion, and said they would contact Claremont higher-ups in the coming days to resolve the matter as amicably as possible.

One result of this convoluted drama is a new conundrum facing freshmen Republicans: Where should they show up on Sunday afternoon? They have an array of simultaneously scheduled conservative events from which to choose – all prior to the start of the official Congressional orientation, which kicks off with an evening dinner, and carries into next week. Sources on both sides said most new members will likely attend the Claremont Institute meeting, but many may try to at least appear at one or both of the other events, which will take place in separate rooms at the Reagan Building.

One Townhall source summarized, “I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks try to stop by all three events in an effort to not ruffle any feathers. This has been ugly enough."