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Conservative and Tea Party Rallies and Trainings Dominate the Capital: Are Progressives and Liberal Democrats About to Be Out-Organized?

Conservative protests in Washington show the breadth of energy and money marshaled to organize the right-wing base, while progressives lag behind.
 
 
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On the terrace that graces the FreedomWorks office suite, right-wing bloggers are chatting jovially, clustered around a beer keg. It's a perfect September night, cool and breezy. The sun is setting over Washington, and from this prime piece of real estate occupied by one of the Tea Party movement's prime movers, one glimpses the top of the National Archives, a large Romanesque structure just a block away, and the twinkling lights of the city beyond. The mood is gleeful: the bloggers smell a big win coming their way in November, when the right could very well win control of the Congress.

Just days ahead of its second 9/12 march on Washington, FreedomWorks has gathered 175 bloggers from 35 states, according to Tabitha Hale, FW's coordinator of interactive media, for a weekend of training just ahead of the November elections, in which FreedomWorks has no small stake. Early in the campaign, FreedomWorks and its chairman, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, set out to rock the Republican establishment and did, backing a handful of Senate candidates in primary challenges to those endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Now, the job is bigger. It's time to beat the Democrats, and polls are indicating that Republicans have a good shot at winning the House and making significant gains in the Senate.

Twice in the course of the last two and a half weeks, the right has drawn thousands of its activists to Washington, D.C., a town once known as a liberal's paradise, overtaking the National Mall, and its surrounding restaurants and coffee shops. This weekend features not only FreedomWorks' 9/12 Taxpayer March on Washington and its blogger conference, but a September 11 rally by a more far-right group, Unite in Action, and an organizing conference directed Ralph Reed, the GOP campaign consultant and former Christian Coalition executive director who was implicated (but never charged) in the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal. Two weekends ago, Glenn Beck's rally filled the Mall with as many as 300,000 Tea Partiers. What is the progressive counterpart to these activities? Not much.

Even the Beck weekend was about more than the rally: while the Fox News personality made a big show of his show at the Lincoln Memorial being (cough) non-political, both FreedomWorks and David Koch's Americans for Prosperity Foundation drew thousands to surrounding and openly political events. The AFPF/Koch convention in the days preceding the Beck rally featured all manner of how-to break-out sessions on how to turn out the vote for right-wing candidates and turn up the heat on liberal lawmakers. And next weekend, several thousand more activists will be in town for the Family Research Council's annual Values Voter Summit.

When progressives head to Washington for the October 2 One Nation march, it will mark only the second time in a year that they have descended on the nation's capital in major numbers; the last time was the big pro-immigrant rally in September 2009. But unless the October rally is as surrounded by hands-on organizing sessions and lobbying how-to seminars as the right's events have been, it will fall short by comparison, even if thousands come to rally at the Lincoln Memorial, as MSNBC host Ed Schultz has called them to do. Don't get me wrong: this looks to be a wonderful event with a great sponsoring coalition, including the AFL-CIO and the NAACP, as well as a number of peace groups, feminist groups and LGBT organizations. But it's just one event in a town that has seen right-wingers bused in for made-for-media protests multiple times over the course of a year.

Working Together

On the other side of the National Mall, at the venerable Mayflower Hotel, Ralph Reed gathered his faithful on Sept. 10-11 for a conference and "strategy briefing"hosted by his new organization, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which is organized as a convergence of the religious right and the Tea Party movement with a focus on turning out the vote in key precincts across the country. If Reed's star has tarnished a bit since he was revealed to have, while working with Abramoff, duped James Dobson and religious-right followers into opposing one Indian tribe's proposed gambling operation because he was secretly in the service of a competing gambling operation, his prowess as vote-getting strategist remains unchallenged.

For his conference, Reed drew together a roster of right-wing stars to gin up several hundred activists for his cause, including former Bush operative Karl Rove, the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, the Daily Caller's Tucker Carlson and Newt Gingrich, who served a menu of Islamophobia and Obama-bashing. (Before the weekend was out, Gingrich would tell National Review Online's Robert Costa that President Barack Obama may subscribe to "a Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview.")

Meanwhile, at the Washington Monument on Sept. 11, a Tea Party group called Unite in Action brought together some of the right's fringier personalities, including Alan Keyes, now an activist with Randall Terry's Insurrecta Nex; actor Stephen Baldwin, purveyor of a Jesus-on-steroids version of Christianity; and an Oath Keepers leader, unnamed on the rally roster, to administer the group's oath for law enforcement officers and members of the armed forces who pledge not to obey any order they deem unconstitutional.

Coming on the heels of Glenn Beck's big rally two weekends ago, none of this weekend's events constituted a major draw on the order of last year's 9/12 march, but that doesn't mean the confluence is insignificant. The fact that they had any draw just weeks after the Beck rally is meaningful, and the sheer proliferation of right-wing events in Washington, within days of one another demonstrates the breadth of energy and money marshaled to organize all factions of the right-wing base.

Add in the sums projected to be spent by these groups for midterm election campaigns and messaging, and it becomes clear their impact is about far more than Tea Party boots on the Capitol grounds on a given weekend. According to a Democratic strategy memo, obtained last month by Huffington Post's Sam Stein, outlining the electoral threats facing Democratic candidates, FreedomWorks has pledged to spend $5 million; Faith and Freedom Coalition $11 million; and Karl Rove's American Crossroads $52 million. (American Crossroads' spending commitment is more than organized labor spent on the 2008 presidential election.) In Stein's report, another operative says Americans for Prosperity is pledged to spend $45 million in the midterm campaigns, though when I talked to AFP president Tim Phillips in July, he said he hoped to spend three times that amount. Asked where he hoped to get that much money, he replied, "Hard-working Americans." He declined to say whether or not his organization was getting corporate donations of any size.

Though all these entities compete for attention and resources -- and infighting within the Tea Party movement continues unabated -- when push comes to shove, the efforts of most will be united in their march to defeat Democrats in the fall, and in 2012. While each of the major groups has its particular focus -- FreedomWorks is a secular purveyor of free-market ideology, Faith and Freedom Coalition is religion-focused, Americans for Prosperity targets older people -- their leaders seem to be making token gestures to those of competing constituencies, in order to bring them all together in November.

"We're big fans of what FreedomWorks and AFP are doing," Ralph Reed told me between break-out sessions at his Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, "but they are primarily, if not exclusively, focused on the fiscal and spending issues, which are very important. We're focusing not only on those, but also on the pro-family agenda, and on foreign policy and defense."

And so we have FreedomWorks' 9/12 march kicking off with a "non-denominational" religious service, in deference to Christians who wouldn't dream of marching on Washington on a Sunday without first having attended church. And at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference podium, Ralph Reed seemed to blow a dog whistle to the militia and patriot movements.

Speaking of the rights endowed to man by the Creator in the Declaration of Independence, Reed told his activists, "The Declaration goes on to say that if any government, so organized, should ever violate those God-given rights, namely, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then the people within that commonwealth, the people who have so organized that government, have not only the right, but they have the duty and obligation to overthrow that government by force, if necessary."

He continued, "Now that is a pretty radical idea. I'm not necessarily advocating that this morning, by the way; I'm simply advocating that we go out and vote." He's not necessarily advocating that, but he's not saying he isn't.

The next day, I asked Reed if he was seeking to broaden the circle by using rhetoric that would appeal to the patriot movement.

"Yeah -- I, uh -- what do you mean? I don't know what you mean by the patriot movement," he replied.

I explained that I was referring to the catch-all term used to describe people in or allied with the states' rights and militia movements.

At the mention of the word militia, he interjected, "No."

"I would really consider myself and Faith and Freedom Coalition to be a mainstream, conservative, pro-freedom organization," Reed continued. "If the patriot movement as you're describing it is those things, then no."

At an Americans for Prosperity rally against health care reform last year, Reed told the assembled activists, "Our right to protest has been purchased with the blood of patriots who paid the ultimate price so that we could be free men and women and have the ability to petition our government." The "blood of patriots" phrase is part of a famous line from Thomas Jefferson that is a favorite of patriot movement members: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Focused on All Things Obama

Gobsmacked by the fact of Obama's election, the right finds its rallying point in the Obama presidency, and its organizing model in his presidential campaign. While the 9/12 march was meant to focus on the congressional elections, the signs held by protesters more often referenced Obama -- as tyrant, Marxist or stupid guy -- than Congress or its leaders.

At the FreedomWorks blogger party, reporter and blogger Robert Stacy McCain spoke to me in awe at the ground operation he saw in place in the 2008 election in, of all places, West Virginia. McCain -- a distant cousin of the former presidential candidate who actually goes by the moniker "the other McCain" -- is one of the right-wing blogosphere's great characters. With the face of a Buckley and the twang of a country-music star, McCain is a man of broad gestures and frenetic energy. At an Obama campaign office in West Virginia, he said, he saw Obama volunteers instructed to go through the contact lists in their own cell phones to locate people in key areas whom they would call to get out the vote. Calls from someone a voter knows are likely to get answered. This peer-to-peer organizing, McCain thought, made all the difference.

Such lessons were hardly lost on Ralph Reed, who offered a very nuts-and-bolts voter-turnout seminar in a break-out session at his conference. The Faith and Freedom Coalition has built a feature into its Web site called VoterTrak, through which, according to Reed, FFC members will be able to contact voters in key areas via their smart phones, laptops and iPads, and talk to them "with a simple script that we will provide you."

Reed promised to make an average of seven contact efforts to each voter identified through his organization's data-mining efforts as likely constituent for his candidates. "And when you contact these voters repeatedly, they will turn out," he says. It's all about "moving he needle," he said.

Reed explained that polls are based on past turnout models; the way to beat the polls, he said, is to increase the turnout of your base -- something he is known for doing with great efficacy.

"I will give Obama and his political team the credit they're due for having done that in 2008," Reed told his foot-soldiers. "They moved the needle of liberal voters, of minority voters, and of voters between the age of 18-29. Those were the key votes that they targeted."

As an example, he cited the increased turnout of African-American voters during the Obama campaign, raising the turnout number from the typical 10 percent of the electorate to 14 percent. In this fall's midterm elections, Reed said, the Faith and Freedom Coalition will target four categories of voters: "faith-based voters -- primarily evangelicals and Catholics -- small businessmen and -women, hunters and sportsmen, and Tea Party-type voters."

"I assure you that if we target those four categories of voters, we'll move the needle," Reed said.

He also cited a victory he claimed as his own: the 2002 election of Sonny Perdue as Georgia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction in a race where Perdue trailed behind his opponent 13 percent in the polls on the Saturday before the Tuesday election. The pollsters, Reed explained, weren't aware of what he, then chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, and his activists were up to, and were working from past turnout models.

Reed predicted that at least seven House races will be decided by margins of 5,000 or so votes. He also told his foot-soldiers that Faith and Freedom Coalition's organizing efforts aren't limited to the congressional elections; they've targeted gubernatorial and key races in state legislatures as well, since it will be the makeup of those state bodies that determines congressional redistricting. He all but smacked his lips at the specter of President Obama having to veto a repeal of his health care reform "two or three times."

Like FFC, FreedomWorks, through its Take America Back political Web site, will also offer a Web-based call center through which members will be able to talk to voters eligible to participate in the 18 House races and nine Senate races the organization is targeting.

The Right, it seems, has learned the lessons of the Obama campaign, even if the Left has not. Liberals and progressives tend to believe that once they have won something -- the presidency, the Congress -- that they have won it. But the Right never concedes defeat.

A Call to Arms

On the terrace at FreedomWorks, the libertarian-minded bloggers drank and smoked with abandon, joyously debating the fiscal necessity versus the "moral hazard" of the bank bailout, or whether Sarah Palin's endorsement of Christine O'Donnell in the GOP primary would yield a candidate who could win in the general election. A blogger named Nadia from Tampa strolled by, a fat stogie in her hand. "Tastes like a Cuban," she said.

In a basement room at the Mayflower, the mood was somber and penitent as Ralph Reed offered a prayer asking collective forgiveness for those assembled, for having let American down, presumably with the election of Barack Obama. "Father, we repent for having taken the gift of this nation, and the freedom that you gave us, for granted. We ask you to forgive us; we ask you to forgive us for our national sins," Reed said. "We ask you to heal our land. Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, offered the keynote speech for the Faith and Freedom Coalition gala, where not a drop of alcohol was served. Freedom, Santorum said, flowed from faith.

Witness the circle widening -- the circle of energized opponents to the re-election of a Democratic Congress.

Given the lighter turnout at this year's FreedomWorks 9/12 march, or the mere 200-300 who turned out for Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, liberals and progressives may be apt to diminish the impact right-wing organizers are likely to have in the midterm elections. They shouldn't. It only takes a core of committed activists to "move the needle," and those who turned up this weekend are among the most committed. Next weekend will bring another 2,000 or 3,000 for the Values Voter Summit.

At the FreedomWorks rally on Capitol Hill, Tea Party leaders from around the country took their turns at the podium, overlooking the crowd carrying signs that promised insurrection or derided the president, and imploring the thousands before them to do their part. Raucous and ready to rumble, the crowd roared back its approval with each appeal.

"I believe we’ve got the Republican Party's attention; we've been beating the establishment all over the country," Dick Armey told the appreciative crowd gathered on the Capitol lawn. "It's time we give the same lesson to the other party."

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.