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Is the Tea Party Really A Grassroots Movement?

The Tea Party movement has claimed a surprising number of victories in the primary season. Dave Levinthal, editor of the Open Secrets Blog for the Center for Responsive Politics, talks to Steve Inskeep about how the Tea Party is funded.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week, we've been looking at the Tea Party movement, which claimed a number of surprising victories this primary season. Soon, we'll find out what affect the movement has on this fall's elections. And this morning we're going to ask where the Tea Party money comes from. We met with Dave Levinthal of OpenSecrets Blog at the Center for Responsive Politics.

Is the Tea Party movement a grassroots movement or not?

Mr. DAVE LEVINTHAL (OpenSecrets Blog, Center for Responsive Politics): On one end, it very much is a grassroots movement. It's a movement that surely sprung up out of the ether in a lot of people's minds. But then on the other hand, you have sort of an establishment that is somewhat preexisting. And these are the folks who have come to the game with a great deal of money, if not a great deal of energy, which certainly you associate with the grassroots end of this movement.

INSKEEP: So you have two things going on at once here, is what you're saying. There really is angst out there. There really are people who are concerned about the direction of the country, but there is also this political structure and corporate structure that's driving them a little bit.

Mr. LEVINTHAL: Certainly. But arguably, there are some groups out there who have co-opted this energy. One would be the Tea Party Express. It's an organization that has largely been criticized by even some of the more grassroots Tea Party organizations as being run by political operatives, run by Republicans and...

INSKEEP: What is it? Is it an office somewhere? Is it an organization? What is it?

Mr. LEVINTHAL: It's an organization out of California, but at the end of the day, this is a group that has come into a number of key Senate races throughout this country and dumped in, poured in hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases in a very, very short period of time in favor of a candidate who they wanted to win.

INSKEEP: And where do they get their money?

Mr. LEVINTHAL: Well, they get their money from a variety of sources, from a lot of individuals, some institutional support. But they have received a ton of it, in fact, just their political action committee alone, the Our Country Deserves Better PAC has raised more than $5 million during this current election cycle.

INSKEEP: There's another group called Americans for Prosperity. What is that?

Mr. LEVINTHAL: Americans for Prosperity is an organization that has spent millions of dollars in various forms during this year, and it's a group that has a lot of power, a lot of influence. And it's similar to a number of organizations that have just cropped up in the aftermath of the Citizens United versus Federal Election Commission decision, which is a Supreme Court decision that has effectively said that it is now legal for corporations, trade unions, other types of groups to directly advocate for or against a particular political candidate, and do so by raising unlimited sums of money.

INSKEEP: President Obama has been complaining specifically about Americans for Prosperity. Let's listen to a little bit of a recent speech from the president.

President BARACK OBAMA: Right now, all around this country, there are groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, who are running millions of dollars of ads against Democratic candidates all across the country. And they don't have to say who exactly the Americans for Prosperity are. You don't know if it a foreign-controlled corporation. You don't know if it's a big oil company or a big bank.

INSKEEP: Is he correct in his descriptions of Americans for Prosperity and what we can know and what we can't know about an organization like that?

Mr. LEVINTHAL: He makes an overriding point that is correct. We don't know a whole lot about who truly is backing them in terms of dollars and cents. This is not exclusive to Republicans or to conservatives. This is across the board. And the way that federal disclosure laws are now written, there's a limited amount of information that can be gleaned. Now, we know who they are. We know a little bit about them, but we don't necessarily know who is fueling their political efforts.

And we've seen this phenomenon even in Congress. A couple of dozen members of Congress has actually established a Tea Party Coalition in Congress, and we actually did a study looking at where they're getting their money from. They're receiving the bulk of their money - or at least most amount of their money -from retirees, from health professionals, and also people who are involved in the financial industries, the oil and gas industries.

INSKEEP: Excuse me, you just said health professionals are giving a lot of money to candidates in the Tea Party caucus?

Mr. LEVINTHAL: Absolutely. Individuals who might be...

INSKEEP: And this is a movement that was fueled by anger about the healthcare law, and people in the health industry are financing the Tea Party caucus?

Mr. LEVINTHAL: It certainly shocked us when we found out, too. But, in fact, the folks who had established this caucus in Congress are being fueled, to a large degree, by health professionals, by doctors.

INSKEEP: And another source of money for the Tea Party caucus is the oil industry, which is probably the one other industry that has made Americans angrier than any other in 2010.

Mr. LEVINTHAL: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there's been much reaction within the Tea Party activists themselves to realize that candidates who are taking on their banner are funded by people in the health industry and the oil industry.

Mr. LEVINTHAL: It goes back to the notion that there may be some people out there who are trying to co-opt the Tea Party movement, the energy, the grassroots nature of this movement and use it at very high levels in politics for their purposes, be them what they may.

INSKEEP: Steve Levinthal writes the OpenSecrets Blog. Thanks very much for coming by.

Mr. LEVINTHAL: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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