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Tea Party Smackdown in Florida

In a spate of lawsuits, the Republican Party of Florida is trying to put a stop to a third party called the Florida TEA Party.

This article was reported in collaboration with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

In the summer of 2009, a couple of right-wing agitators in Orlando, Florida, took note of the political theater exploding around the country -- protests by men wearing tricornered hats and breeches, brawls at health-care reform town halls, the tent-revival-style gatherings vowing to take our country back -- and saw an opening.

They held meetings. They came up with a platform that ditched social issues like abortion and gay marriage, sticking with strictly fiscal matters -- reduced government, lower taxes, and a reduced national debt. And then the brains behind the outfit, a 56-year-old conservative radio talk show host and political gadfly named Doug Guetzloe and a 58-year-old lawyer Fred O'Neal, promptly registered their group as an official political body, the Taxed Enough Already, or TEA, Party and put candidates up for election throughout Florida.

That's when the wave of popular outrage they were riding threatened to crash down on them. Other Tea Party groups around the state decried their maneuvering. It's a movement not a party, they said. Registering the TEA Party name threatened to prevent other groups from using it, they said, as Florida law gives control of a political party's name to the registered user. They worried that TEA Party candidates would only siphon conservative votes from Republicans, and they were suspicious as to why Guetzloe, who is a controversial figure among conservatives, didn't network with them to build a coalition of supporters first.

Then these grassroots Tea Partiers began suing the registered TEA Party -- and suing, and suing. A coalition of groups filed eleven lawsuits in all, ten to knock TEA Party candidates off the ballots, and one federal suit alleging trademark infringement.

And just who was funding this explosion of intra-Tea Party litigation? Republican donors and the Republican Party of Florida itself.

Across the country, the GOP has hitched its wagon to the Tea Party, hoping its populist energy will help sweep in a Republican majority come November. Yet deep tensions exist between party regulars and Tea Party upstarts. Nowhere are those tensions more in evidence than in Florida, where a flowering of more than a hundred Tea Party groups is helping revive a local GOP beleaguered by scandal, where local Tea Party groups clash angrily with the national ones -- and where the GOP sues those who threaten its chances at the ballot box.

"One of the goals of the Republican Party is trying to make sure the Tea Party doesn't become a [viable] third party," O'Neal says. "They want to make sure it stays in the fold."

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The specter of the Republican Party suing tea partiers, no matter what their provenance, makes some conservative analysts uneasy. Chris Ingram, president of Tampa-based 411 Communications, a political consulting firm, is deeply suspicious of Guetzloe, whom he labeled in August one of the "five most dangerous people in Florida politics" on his political blog Irreverent View. Nonetheless, he sees risks in the GOP's approach.

"It's probably not a good call from a public relations standpoint," Ingram says. "But from the party's perspective, in the long run the ends will justify the means when they win and deny this group the opportunity to be on the ballot." With so many Tea Party candidates coming from within Republican Party ranks, Ingram says, GOP officials quickly realized that "if they didn't infiltrate and quickly get control of the Tea Party movement, they would start losing elections."

At any rate, Ingram is skeptical about whether these activists can survive outside the Republican machine for long.

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