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Scam PACs killed the Tea Party. Now the GOP is facing the consequences

Conservative Review

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is in trouble. He's running for re-election in Texas, the race is closer than it has any right to be, and the Tea Party isn't around to help him this time.

The latest polls conducted in August have Cruz leading his opponent, Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, by just four points and then just one point. O'Rourke has consistently dwarfed Cruz's fund-raising, building a national profile through glowing articles written to energize grassroots progressives. The Left is eager to show a blue wave is happening by defeating Cruz, the Senate's highest-profile conservative in arguably the most conservative state in the union.

Conservatives aren't matching the Democrats' grassroots enthusiasm. The Star-Telegram reports that Cruz, on the campaign trail, is telling Texas voters he does not have enough money to compete with O'Rourke's million-dollar TV ad assault.

“We’re seeing the airwaves flooded [with O’Rourke’s TV ads],” Cruz told a rally at The Colony, Texas. “We’ve got to save our resources to turn out and mobilize conservatives.”

The Tea Party grassroots groups that were instrumental to electing Cruz to the Senate in 2012, defeating an establishment Republican in the GOP primary, aren't able to offer the same assistance as they did when the Tea Party was ascendent in 2010 and 2012. The money just isn't there, as the Star-Telegram highlights:

Of the groups that worked to help Cruz do that in his first race, FreedomWorks (which raised more than $23 million during that election cycle and spent roughly $500,000 helping Cruz) reported $117,000 on hand as of June 30.

The Senate Conservatives Fund, which raised roughly $16 million in the 2012 election cycle, has brought in about $4 million in the 2018 cycle. The Tea Party Express reported $0 raised in the 2018 election cycle, according to reports with the Federal Election Commission.

One GOP Senate operative attributes the lack of small-dollar donations to all of the focus on President Donald Trump and the political antics surrounding the White House.

“All of the grassroots enthusiasm that drove tea party fundraising spends all of its time supporting Trump on Twitter,” the operative told the Star-Tribune anonymously, so that he could speak candidly. “There['s] so much focus on Trump, it’s really sucked a lot of the oxygen out of the small-dollar enthusiasm.”

The weak fund-raising showing from Tea Party grassroots groups isn't a problem that affects only Ted Cruz. More broadly, these conservative organizations do not have the resources to defend conservative incumbents across the country and help conservative challengers defeat Democrats.

But blaming the focus on Trump as the sole reason conservatives are in trouble is misdiagnosing the problem. The fact of the matter is that the Tea Party and conservative political movement is dead. It was murdered.

It was murdered by greedy lawyers and political consultants who saw thousands of limited-government activists rise up in 2009 to oppose the Obama agenda and thought they could get rich by cheating these people. They created scam PACs, political action committees that promised to take on the Washington establishment if you would just open your pocketbook, while in reality they enriched their own operatives. As Politico reported in 2015, these PACs raised millions of dollars from earnest, well-intentioned grassroots conservatives and then flushed that money into the D.C. swamp:

A POLITICO analysis of reports filed with the Federal Election Commission covering the 2014 cycle found that 33 PACs that court small donors with tea party-oriented email and direct-mail appeals raised $43 million — 74 percent of which came from small donors. The PACs spent only $3 million on ads and contributions to boost the long-shot candidates often touted in the appeals, compared to $39.5 million on operating expenses, including $6 million to firms owned or managed by the operatives who run the PACs. POLITICO’s list is not all-inclusive, and some conservatives fret that it’s almost impossible to identify all the groups that are out there, let alone to rein them in.

“These groups have the pulse of the crowd, and they recognize that they can make a profit off the angst of the conservative base voters who are looking for outsiders,” said the influential conservative pundit Erick Erickson, who has taken it upon himself to call out PAC operators and fundraisers he sees as scams. They are “completely a drain,” said Erickson, whose assessments of candidates and groups carry particular weight among tea party activists and the Republicans who court them. “The conservative activists feel like they’ve contributed to a cause greater than themselves, but the money goes to the consultants, and eventually the activists get burned out and stop giving money, including to the legitimate causes.”

Valuable resources were parasitically sucked from the conservative movement, resources that could have supported conservative candidates against the establishment and pushed forward a conservative agenda. Combine that with a backstabbing Republican leadership, and the hard work of the conservative grassroots was rewarded with inaction from Congress. Even with full Republican control of government and the final dying action of the Tea Party, embodied in the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, the only significant delivery from Congress and the president has been tax cuts, the expectation of every GOP administration.

Is it any wonder that conservative grassroots are no longer donating? They've given money for years, and what are the returns for that investment? Where are the bold conservative reforms?

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee is seeing record fund-raising, a sign that GOP establishment donors are still engaged. The party establishment is empowered to support candidates who will support them, while grassroots conservatives are tuned out. That's partly why conservative candidates who could be thought of as "Tea Party" insurgents performed miserably against incumbent Republicans in the 2018 primaries: There's no movement to support them.

But Republicans need the conservative movement. They cannot win the midterms by offering a milquetoast, unambitious agenda of cutting taxes and complaining that there aren't enough Republicans in the Senate to do anything else. Cruz is likely to beat O'Rourke; he's a Republican running in Texas, after all. But Republicans in bluer parts of the country aren't so fortunate. They need the conservative grassroots to support their campaigns and turn out to vote.

Unfortunately, there is no Tea Party to defend the GOP majorities in 2018. The Democrats are dancing on its grave.

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