Are Tea Party PACs Scamming Their Donors?

Purity for profit on display.


As they were in 2010 and 2012, Tea Party related groups are quite active in backing insurgent candidates in Senate and House races around the country and they raise money from their supporters based on their support for these candidates. As it turns out, though, they aren’t really spending much money on behalf of these candidates:

When the Tea Party Patriots threw its support last month behind Matt Bevin, the underdog conservative challenger trying to unseat top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, President Jenny Beth Martin vowed the group would be “putting our money where our mouth is.”

So far, its super PAC has mustered just $56,000 worth of mailers in Kentucky on Bevin’s behalf — less than half the amount it has paid Martin in consulting fees since July.

The Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, which blew through nearly $2 million on expenses such as fundraising, polling and consultants in the first three months of this year, is not alone in its meager spending on candidates.

A Washington Post analysis found that some of the top national tea party groups engaged in this year’s midterm elections have put just a tiny fraction of their money directly into boosting the candidates they’ve endorsed.

The practice is not unusual in the freewheeling world of big-money political groups, but it runs counter to the ethos of the tea party movement, which sprouted five years ago amid anger on the right over wasteful government spending. And it contrasts with the urgent appeals tea party groups have made to their base of small donors, many of whom repeatedly contribute after being promised that their money will help elect conservative politicians.

Out of the $37.5 million spent so far by the PACs of six major tea party organizations, less than $7 million has been devoted to directly helping candidates, according to the analysis, which was based on campaign finance data provided by the Sunlight Foundation.

Roughly half of the money — nearly $18 million — has gone to pay for fundraising and direct mail, largely provided by Washington-area firms. Meanwhile, tea party leaders and their family members have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees, while their groups have doled out large sums for airfare, a retirement plan and even interior decorating.

The lavish spending underscores how the protest movement has gone professional, with national groups transforming themselves into multimillion-dollar organizations run by activists collecting six-figure salaries.

Three well-known groups — the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express and the Madison Project — have spent 5 percent or less of their money directly on election-related activity during this election cycle. Two other prominent tea party groups, the Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks, have devoted about 40 percent of their money to direct candidate support such as ads and yard signs.

This isn’t entirely new. Last year, Buzzfeed published a story about Freedomworks that received a lot of attention at the time. Among other things revealed by that reported were such expenditures as $8,000 for a hotel bill for Matt Kibbe, the organization’s President and CEO, staff dining at fancy D.C. restaurants, at least $1,000,000 invested in the organization’s partnership with Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, and a microbrew bar at the organization’s headquarters. All of this was paid out of funds donated by the public, but what it had to do with advancing the organization’s agenda or supporting the candidates it was backing is entirely unclear. Additionally, Tom Dougherty wrote a detailed post regarding the spending habits of the Senate Conservatives Fund, the PAC founded by Jim DeMint which last year played a prominent role in bringing about the politically disastrous government shutdown. The only conclusion one can reach from Doughterty’s analysis of SCF’s spending patterns is that the groups mission has nothing to do with advancing Republican candidates:

Returning to the purity for profit concept and the new direction of the Senate Conservatives Fund there clearly can be a case made that politics of any nature is slipping into the back seat, while raising more money to attack more Republicans whom the SCF just doesn’t like is sliding behind the wheel.

If that is the new mission of the Senate Conservatives Fund then they are entitled to it by all means in a capitalist world but they might do well to consider the greater ramifications, and they might also fully consider the impact of their primary beneficiary, Sen. Ted Cruz, stating he will not participate in Republican primary battles.

Nobody or no group within the Republican Party is going to get everything they want but spending millions on bashing fellow Republicans will do nothing but help the Democrats maintain the majority in the Senate, and if you don’t win you can’t legislate.

This “purity for profit” model seems to be prevalent throughout the Tea Party movement. Rather than acting to bring about real legislative change, or advocating positions that will lead to the kind of electoral victories that the Tea Party would actually need to accomplish anything, they specialize in stirring up outrage, whether its over the Affordable Care Act, the Debt Ceiling, or even something as trivial as light bulbs, and then fundraising off that outrage. During election cycles, they seem to specialize more attacking Republican candidates for perceived deviations from orthodoxy than anything else. Behavior like like this suggests that these groups arent’ really interested in winning any of these ideological battles, but in keeping the outrage going because it helps with their fundraising. That becomes even more apparent when these groups end up backing candidates that obviously can’t win General Elections, such as Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Joe Miller, or Matt Bevin many of whom seem to be fund raising vehicles rather than actual serious candidates.  The question that remains is when the donors sending them money are going to figure the scam out and stop sending them checks.

FILED UNDER: 2014 Election, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    A long time buddy of mine has some rather strong Tea Party leanings and is a member of TP Patriots. And while he and I have had many… discussions… over race and guns, I’ve never had the heart to tell him he is being taken for his money just like any other sucker.

  2. Al says:

    The IRS should investigate this.

  3. CSK says:


    What they’re doing is legal. Outrageously sleazy, but legal, unfortunately. SarahPac spends considerably more to subsidize Sarah Palin than it does on candidates.

  4. sam says:

    They seem to have the same demographic as televanglists. The results should come as no surprise to anyone.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    @sam: So true Sam. Grifters, they are all grifters.

  6. anjin-san says:

    A fool and his money are soon parted…

  7. David in KC says:

    Surprise, surprise, the “grassroots” movement known as the Tea Party is really just fertilizer for parasitical plants.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Tea Party groups are really just about fleecing the rubes? Well, duh.

  9. Brett says:

    I love reading about this stuff, especially since if there’s an equivalent over the Democratic side of things, we’re not hearing about it (probably because there’s just less money overall being spread around in these kinds of races, and less fundraising particularly from scared old people with money).

    That said, Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks made a good point about how a big chunk of it may be going towards training people to do door-to-door activism, as opposed to nearly worthless television advertising. I don’t know whether that’s actually true – I still think there’s a ton of self-enrichment going on, particularly with Tea Party Patriots – but it’s a potential response.

  10. michael reynolds says:


    Do you have some evidence that it’s the same on the Left, or is that an assumption?

    EDIT: Sorry, didn’t see the “if.” I really just need to break down and admit I need the type magnified.

  11. grumpy realist says:

    Yup. Televangelists/conserventertainment complex/grifters gotta grift.

    One of the reasons I donate to very few groups–my alma mater, and a Lutheran school run by a friend of mine, where I know my money goes 100% to support the students there.

    Asking for an audited report of a non-profit’s expense percentages sent to me first before I’ll donate has managed to get me off five calling lists that I know about.

  12. Barry says:

    BTW, Doug, that article talks about ‘going professional’. How many of these guys were ‘professional’ from the start?

  13. MBunge says:

    “if there’s an equivalent over the Democratic side of things, we’re not hearing about it”

    The equivalent on the left would probably be the stories you can find of how liberal groups pay low-level staffers so poorly or rely on unpaid internships that only trust fund babies can afford to take.


  14. Scott O says:

    This may be the next big “scandal”. Why did Obama let them get away with this?

  15. Woody says:

    Sounds like Fox News startups to me.

    These outfits advertise policy advocacy and candidate recruitment/support.
    Fox News advertise er, news, current events and news analysis.

    The real product for both seems to be outrage, cranked to eleven.

  16. Mortgagerefugee says:

    The Tea Party is to the right of Republicans, Romney, and whats Right and we know the Republican Party is about money, NRA, Big Business, Sheltering money, subsudizing large corporations while reducing food stamps, and preventing the needy from gettting Affordable Health Care. The IRS will be jailing a lot of Republicans soon. Everyone reap what they sow. There are no exemptions. They may get tax exemptions but they want get jail exemptions. I hope to see some drinking tea in jail, on MSNBC prison show.
    Greed,and more greed has corrupted the Republican party.They’ll do anything for money and votes in the name of God and the Second Amendment. They are full of it. The Tea Party is on its way out. They are useless and counterproductive. They are worse than flys. At least flies don’t steal from the poor they are equal opportunity. In a little while many want be partying but will be lying in a ditch.

  17. Rob in CT says:



  18. Jeremy says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Ooh, I’ll have to remember that tip.

  19. Anonne says:

    Wingnut Welfare 101.

    Legal but unprincipled all the same! This is precisely why Sarah Palin and the like continue the c*cktease of running for office. It’s a good gig if you can get it!

  20. Mortgagerefugee says:

    @grumpy realist: Most people are not familiar with 501c3&4’s. Many THINK NONPROFIT means you are not making money. Let’s educate the public then maybe they’ll wake up and get off their ass and on their feet. We need more proactive voices. “PEOPLE WHO CARE”