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Tea party organizer trains Las Vegans to be ‘Freedom Ninjas’

Inside a hotel conference room, on a sultry summer night south of the Strip, a national tea party organizer trained 100 conservative activists in the art of political warfare.

Saturdays are best for walking door to door, the house-to-house part of the campaign. More people are home instead of at work or at church. Phone banks should be fun, so buy pizza, beer and soda and laugh it up.

Yard signs, at a cost of $100 for 1,000, should be strategically – and liberally – placed in high-traffic areas so they don’t disappear in a crowd of other candidates’ signs. And, sometimes, signs should be used to shake up the enemy – set up outside an opponent’s campaign event so his or her supporters feel outmatched.

"All politics is warfare by other means. You’re all freedom ninjas," said David Spielman, campaign coordinator for FreedomWorks, who was conducting the training. "Signs are like air support. The idea is to overdo it."

That’s what Spielman said he did in 2010 when first lady Michelle Obama came to Las Vegas to campaign for U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., at a local high school. He put up 250 signs around the school, proclaiming: "Harry Reid Kills Jobs." Later, he was kicked off campus, but the signs stayed.

"She drove by all these signs," said Spielman, smiling at the memory as he shared the story as part of the two-hour seminar. "You know she’s in her car saying, ‘Where is his campaign team?’ It’s psychological warfare."

The better-organized Senate Majority Leader Reid won, however. Sharron Angle, the Republican whom FreedomWorks helped, lost by nearly 6 percentage points in the highest stakes U.S. Senate race in the nation.

The Angle loss was one of the biggest tea party failures of the 2010 election. The defeat appeared to deflate the movement of anti-tax, pro-Constitution conservatives in Nevada. And it prompted Reid to predict the tea party’s demise, even as he continues to use the "tea party" label to deride "Republican obstructionism" in Washington.

"The tea party will disappear as soon as the economy gets better and the economy is getting better all the time," Reid said earlier this year during an interview on NBC’s "Meet the Press" program.

But the economy is not improving fast enough, say conservatives, who are working for a GOP takeover of the Senate two years after Republicans won control of the House thanks to the energy of the tea party movement.

As for the tea party in Nevada, it appears to be alive and well. Hundreds of activists are working behind the scenes and on the front lines for GOP campaigns up and down the ticket. The movement has gone beyond the loud anti-tax rallies of 2009 and developed into grass-roots organizing on the ground, where elections are won and lost.

"We’re not dead and we’re definitely united," said Cathie Lynn Profant, president of the Grass Roots Tea Party of Nevada, which sprung up more than a year ago and is one of the most active groups.

This past week alone, Profant and her tea party crew were at several events and worked the phones at Team Nevada, the office set up by the Republican National Committee and Mitt Romney’s GOP presidential campaign.

The activists showed up Monday at the Team Nevada office in Summerlin when Romney’s campaign bus stopped in Las Vegas. Wednesday evening, they attended the FreedomWorks grass-roots training.

Thursday morning, they helped launch a conservative Americans for Prosperity bus tour across Nevada to oppose the policies of U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Democrat running against U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.

"This has been a busy week," said Profant, whose troops were going door to door Saturday as well.

Profant often works with the Las Vegas Valley Tea Party, which helped organize the FreedomWorks training

Spielman of FreedomWorks said the movement has evolved – he calls it tea party 3.0 – and now is using sophisticated online and mobile voter-tracking tools in battleground states to help get out the vote for conservatives.

As example, Spielman told the activists about iPhone technology they can use while canvassing neighborhoods to tap into FreedomWorks’ database to find out where Republican and independent swing voters live.

"If you’re trying to get a conservative elected, there’s no point in knocking on the door of a Democrat," he said.

As the leading tea party training organization in the country, FreedomWorks’ top goal is to flip the Senate to GOP control and maintain control of the House. Spielman was in town to meet with and train local activists and access Republican candidates his organization may endorse to help push them over the line to victory in close races.

FreedomWorks is considering endorsing Heller, he said, and Danny Tarkanian, the Republican in an uphill fight for Nevada’s new 4th Congressional District against state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas.

Tea party activists are pressing FreedomWorks to endorse naval officer Chris Edwards, a Republican in a long-shot race against former U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who is seeking Berkley’s old safe Democratic seat.

U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., enjoys backing from tea party conservatives in Nevada, but Spielman said FreedomWorks isn’t thinking of endorsing him in the swing 3rd Congressional District. Nevada Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, is opposing Heck, who appears to have an edge.

"It’s all about resources," Spielman said. "We have limited resources and we have to choose."

At Wednesday night’s training, tea party activists asked Spielman whether FreedomWorks would get involved in the 2012 Senate race. He said that depends on three things:

n Do activists want FreedomWorks to help the candidate with get-out-the-vote efforts?

n Does the candidate have a conservative record, backing lower taxes, less government and more freedoms?

n Can the candidate win in the district given its makeup and given how much money he or she can raise?

"We are looking at the Senate race very closely," Spielman said. "We are looking at Tarkanian. We are talking to Edwards. Just an endorsement by FreedomWorks will get you 2 percent" at the polls.

Spielman said the grass-roots training and organizing FreedomWorks does can help swing a race by 3 to 5 percentage points. In close races, it could make the difference between winning and losing.

Although Angle lost in 2010, at least half a dozen other tea party-backed candidates across the country won. And several now are held up as examples of what the conservative movement can accomplish. High-profile victors included U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, a rising Hispanic star of Florida, and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

FreedomWorks leaders say they’re intent on staging a "hostile takeover" of the Republican Party. The conservative activists want to move the GOP to the right on fiscal issues after years of runaway government spending led to record U.S. debt, now more than $15 trillion.

"We are working to take on the party and the only way to do that is to get inside," Spielman said.

FreedomWorks’ Political Action Committee is one of the biggest in the nation, backed mostly by big money private donors. But the $2 million it raised in 2011 is dwarfed by major PACs such as Restore Our Future, which raised $30 million last year to support Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee.

FreedomWorks had opposed Romney during the GOP primary because the former governor of Massachusetts and business­man wasn’t conservative enough. But Spielman shrugs now. He said Republican activists will almost certainly support Romney if only to oust President Barack Obama from the White House.

When Wednesday night’s training wrapped up after 9 p.m., Vicki Dooling of the Las Vegas Valley Tea Party seemed pleased by the energy in the room. Dooling said she’d been helping Edwards’ congressional campaign and she is supporting Heller and Heck as well.

Asked about Romney, Dooling sighed. She said his campaign has yet to contact her tea party group.

"I’ll end up helping Romney by helping the others," Dooling said. "We would like Romney to please reach out to us. I think he knows we’ll vote for him, but it might help."

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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