Election season tests tea party’s ideals

Supporters find it hard to get ‘pure,’ viable candidates

Signs supporting Stephen Fincher, a Republican candidate for Congress, dot areas of western Tennessee. Some tea party activists have criticized him for accepting farm subsidies. Signs supporting Stephen Fincher, a Republican candidate for Congress, dot areas of western Tennessee. Some tea party activists have criticized him for accepting farm subsidies. (Michael Williamson/Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post / April 4, 2010

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FROG JUMP, Tenn. — But for one important detail, Stephen Fincher could be a perfect “tea party’’ candidate: a gospel-singing cotton farmer from this tiny hamlet in western Tennessee, seeking to right the listing ship of Washington with a commitment to lower taxes and smaller government.

The detail? Fincher accepts about $200,000 in farm subsidies each year.

Some tea party activists say Fincher, a Republican candidate in Tennessee’s Eighth Congressional District, isn’t “pure’’ enough to deserve the backing of a movement built on the idea that government must spend less. But others have pledged their support, highlighting a division over what constitutes orthodoxy in the amorphous cause — and who gets to decide.

As congressional primary campaigns gear up across the nation, tea party activists face some of their first big choices since coalescing last year in opposition to President Obama, health care overhaul, and growing federal spending: picking candidates.

In many cases, they will have to decide between purity and pragmatism, between ideals and organization.

And their choices will provide clues to the long-term fate of the movement. Will mainstream Republicans, with their bigger budgets and more polished candidates, harness the tea party’s energy at the expense of home-grown activism? And for whom would that be a victory — the Republicans, the tea party, or both?

“This effort is to try to get the Republican Party to try to give us more conservative candidates,’’ said David Nance, a Fincher supporter and the founder of the Gibson County Patriots, in Jackson, Tenn. “A few days ago, I was watching two candidates on one of the news channels, and basically they were kind of sparring over which one was the more conservative. Now that tells me that something’s working.’’

In the meeting room of the Munford, Tenn., municipal building, the Tipton County Tea Party convened on a recent evening to raise money for billboards, organize a tax day protest, and encourage attendance at a state convention.

About 40 people came to the meeting. They cheered when the organizer, Vince DiCello, told a long-winded joke about a new metal called Pelosium, after Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (“its mass keeps getting heavier’’).

And they murmured in disapproval when he passed around a photograph of Obama with his shoes off — evidence, DiCello said, that the president prays with Muslims but not Christians.

But when DiCello asked for donations to place conservative messages on highway billboards statewide, he was met with skepticism. “Are these all going to be in West Tennessee?’’ one person asked. “Where is the money going?’’ asked another.

“We’re collecting money individually as tea party groups,’’ DiCello replied. Sensing the suspicion in the room, he added: “These people are not going to take our money and steal it.’’

That some were unconvinced illustrates the movement’s mistrust of centralized power. But if a dozen groups across Tennessee can’t collect money for billboards, how can they organize a successful election campaign or grow into a permanent political force?

These activists mistrust Fincher because he is the anointed candidate of national Republicans and because of those farm subsidies. Jim Tomasik, a leader of the Mid-South Tea Party in Cordova, Tenn., is heading perhaps the most organized effort to portray Fincher as a welfare-farmer who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from other subsidy-receiving farmers.

“If Republicans are going to complain about subsidizing General Motors, that’s a drop in the bucket to farm subsidies,’’ Tomasik said. “But they’re backing candidates who are taking large amounts of money from the federal government. That’s hypocritical.’’

Donn Janes, an independent and self-described tea party candidate for the Eighth District seat, is also among Fincher’s critics. But the challenge of competing against a well-funded candidate — Fincher has raised nearly $1 million — was highlighted in Janes’s plea for support at the Tipton County Tea Party meeting, where he invited activists to a bowling alley fund-raiser. “If you can attend, that would be great,’’ Janes said. “I’m not one of those guys who has a ton of special interest money.’’