Minnesota's Tea Party: A divided force

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 12, 2010 - 11:29 PM

A major presence in other states, the movement is conflicted about helping GOP candidates here.

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''We’re not a GOP dog and pony show,’’ Tea Party activist Toni Backdahl says.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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In an election year marked by well-funded Tea Party insurgencies across the nation, Minnesota's movement finds itself split by disputes and short of the cash that could make its activists players in the November elections.

Unlike national Tea Party organizations that strongly support conservative candidates like Republican Michele Bachmann, Minnesota's leading Tea Party activists are deeply conflicted about ties to the GOP. Local leaders say they care less about being players in the big races than preserving the decentralized, grassroots ethic they see as their greatest asset.

The upshot is a fledgling movement already divided in two as it vies for money and the allegiance of dozens of smaller groups across the state, with both factions accusing each other of trying to head what is supposed to be a headless organization.

Antoinette (Toni) Backdahl, a political newcomer who helped found the state's Tea Party group, takes a decidedly independent stance.

"We're not a GOP dog and pony show," says Backdahl. But as the movement grows, her purist fervor has put her at odds with even newer leaders, like Randy Liebo, co-founder of the North Star Tea Party Patriots, whose members are more willing to work with the GOP.

While national Tea Party organizations spend millions on advocacy and congressional elections, Minnesota's two leading Tea Party groups still operate on the edges of the Republican Party -- though close enough to nudge the state party to the right on some key endorsements, including that of gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer.

Lack of organization has also made them cash-poor. A dispute between Backdahl and Liebo over the cost of a single bus charter to Bachmann's House Call rally in Washington last November underscored the financial constraints they face as one of the smallest-dollar Tea Party groups in the nation.

"All of our contributions are from individuals," Liebo said. "The largest check I've seen was for $500."

National party well-funded

That stands in stark contrast to the top national players in the Tea Party movement: Americans for Prosperity, funded by the oil billionaire Koch family; FreedomWorks, led by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey; and the Tea Party Express, a political action committee (PAC) that spent $240,000 in ads on behalf of Christine O'Donnell, the social conservative who won Delaware's GOP primary for the U.S. Senate.

The Tea Party Express, which has been connected to top national GOP strategist Sal Russo, strongly backs Bachmann's reelection bid in Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District. But while Bachmann signs are a common sight at local Tea Party rallies around the state, like one that drew about 150 people in St. Cloud last weekend, local organizers say they are neither part of the GOP, nor apart from it.

Even Liebo said that "I will encourage people to get involved in the elections, but I will not direct them to Republican Party events."

Backdahl is even firmer. "We're never going to be party line. I think that's dangerous," said Backdahl, who helps run a family moving and storage business in Plymouth.

Backdahl is the keeper of a Tea Party e-mail list with some 5,000 names. Liebo, an Eden Prairie consultant, has built connections with national leaders by participating in teleconference calls and "webinars" with them.

Minnesota GOP Chairman Tony Sutton said that many Tea Party activists are also in the Republican Party as candidates, delegates or volunteers. "It's not a separate apparatus in a lot of cases," Sutton said. "A lot of these folks integrated themselves into the party system."

That's a problem for ardent Tea Partiers like Backdahl, but Liebo has also had his disputes with some of the national Tea Party organizations.

The Tea Party Express rally in Minneapolis last April with Bachmann and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin generated excitement around the Tea Party and getting out the vote, but it also vacuumed up a lot of local fundraising donations.

"I hope they never come back," Liebo said.

By comparison, Liebo's North Star Patriots group is helping local affiliates apply for grants made available by an anonymous $1 million donation to the national Tea Party Patriots. The money is mostly for organizing and outreach efforts, he said. The group does not endorse candidates. Not even its own.

That's why Deanna Boss, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots of the Twin Cities, is running for a state House seat as a Republican. "If you want to make a difference, you have to get involved in party politics," she said.

'Mixed feelings'

After O'Donnell's upset victory in Delaware, Liebo was in no mood to celebrate.

Some national Republican leaders were reluctant to endorse a maverick with a history of debt, witchcraft and a controversial campaign against masturbation -- easy pickings for the Democratic opposition.

But for Liebo, O'Donnell's ideas about small government, free enterprise, and fiscal discipline made her a kindred spirit in the upstart conservative movement that has popped up across the nation.

Candidacies like O'Donnell's and Bachmann's remain a test for the Tea Party's relationship to the Republican Party, which some activists view with distrust.

Before Bachmann launched her House Tea Party Caucus in Congress, she met with local Tea Party organizers.

"People left the meeting with a lot of mixed feelings," Boss recalls.

The distrust can be mutual, particularly for those moderate Republicans who feel like a vanishing breed. State Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, who is openly gay, lost his primary bid this year to an opponent backed by Tea Party activists and social conservatives in his party. Koering sees himself as the victim of a purge.

"They're purifying the party," said Koering, who faced scrutiny for a dinner date with a male porn star. "If you're gay, or you're pro-choice, or you don't fit their mold, you're out."

Taxpayer League President Phil Krinkie, a former GOP state legislator, said the Tea Party is simply the leading edge of "an upsurge from the conservative side of the Republican Party."

Still, in a movement widely derided as the province of angry, white, anti-tax, church-based social conservatives, Tea Party activists in Minnesota have shown a few surprising twists, owing in part to the lack of any centralized organizing entity.

Rochester Tea Party activist Steve Wilson, who is running for Congress in southern Minnesota's First District, espouses a fairly centrist view of the federal budget that calls for both spending cuts and tax increases. "Someone needs to be honest," said Wilson, who is endorsed by the Independence Party. "It's the best bad choice we have."

Wilson prays before every meal, but in his campaign he puts aside his views against abortion and gay marriage to focus on the fiscal challenges he feels are threatening the nation's survival.

That's a view that also has the backing of Liebo, who is Jewish. Before Liebo presses an issue, he says, he scours it for the Tea Party's bedrock, free market principles: "I want to know, 'How does this give me a job, or lower my taxes?'"

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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