The eclectic mix of conservative groups that make up the tea party movement — and their universal disdain for the political party that shares its name — was on display at a rally in downtown Orlando this weekend.
The rally, organized by Americans for Prosperity, brought together several dozen people to oppose the “big government policies” of Reps. Suzanne Kosmas and Alan Grayson, Central Florida freshmen on the Republican “hit list” of vulnerable Democratic incumbents. Speakers denounced excessive regulation and government spending, and several reserved special wrath for the Florida Tea Party, which they fear could hurt their side’s chances in November.
The long-simmering dispute between party and movement took on new significance last week as the party entered a spate of new candidates before Friday’s filing deadline. Activists claim the Democratic Party is behind many of the candidates.
Bruce O’Donahue, part of the crowded field of contenders in the Republican primary vying to challenge Grayson for the District 8 congressional seat, held a press conference Thursday in the same location as Saturday’s rally. He condemned the Tea Party and its candidate, Peg Dunmire, who he called a “Grayson stooge.”
Grayson’s response, as quoted by Politico: ”All right, you got me. I invented the Tea Party. Sarah Palin is a puppet, and she does whatever I tell her to do.”
By the filing deadline Friday, the party had slated 20 candidates in Florida races.
“While a few Tea Party candidates across the state do have ties to the tea party movement, in the majority of instances, it appears that the Democrats have coordinated a dishonest attempt to hide phony candidates behind the name ‘tea party’ and to confuse voters who may be supportive of the tea party movement, effectively stealing votes from true conservative candidates and injuring the grassroots tea party movement as a whole,” Republican Party of Florida chair and state Rep. John Thrasher said in a statement.
“Despite their beliefs, the black helicopters are not coming to get John Thrasher,” Democrat spokesman Eric Jotkoff shot back in the St. Petersburg Times.
Jason Hoyt, a local radio host who helped establish the tea party movement in Orlando, says the party makes a mockery of the movement that shares its name (a fact that is the subject of an ongoing legal battle). He adds that the Tea Party has caused confusion among supporters. ”Everywhere we go, we have to make this disclaimer,” he says.
He says the movement plans to back “constitutional conservatives” in Republican primaries for reasons of both tactics (a united conservative front stands a better chance at winning in November) and principle (the movement believes candidates should be chosen by a popular vote, not selected by a party).
The fact that Fred O’Neal, the party’s one-man executive committee, was once a registered Democrat also raised the suspicions of tea partiers, including Dan Fanelli, another candidate in the Republican Primary for Grayson’s seat, who says the party invited him to be its candidate in that race.
Some of the Tea Party’s candidates are challenging Democratic incumbents, like Grayson and state Rep. Ron Saunders, who is slated to become House Minority Leader. Others are challenging Republicans, like state Rep. Dean Cannon, incoming Speaker of the House.
Tea Party candidate James “Heinie” Heinzelman is challenging Republican Bryan Nelson in House District 38, where there is no Democrat running, while Ari Abraham Porth, the Democrat incumbent in District 96, faces a Tea Party challenge from Jason B. Weakley, but not from a Republican.