IRS scandal energizes tea party movement, experts say
National light now shines on local groups
Lucy May, WCPO Digital
5:30 AM, Jun 9, 2013
10:31 AM, Jun 10, 2013
CINCINNATI - For the first time in years, the media is covering the work of the Cincinnati Tea Party.
Donations are up at the conservative Kentucky 9/12 Project in Georgetown, Ky.
And attendance was nearly three times higher at a recent Liberty Township Tea Party meeting compared to the group's other get-togethers since the last election.
The reason: The Internal Revenue Service scandal, where agents in Cincinnati targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny in their applications for tax-exempt status.
While much of the media coverage of the controversy has focused on the long delays, hassles and frustrations created by the IRS's targeting of conservative groups, there's another side to the scandal.
"This was a gift," said Gene Beaupre, director of community and government relations at Xavier University and a longtime political observer. "And it was really given to them unintentionally."
Or as Kentucky 9/12 Project Executive Director Eric Wilson puts it: "I think this is the April 2009 watershed moment all over again, or at least it has the potential to be."
What Wilson refers to is April 15, 2009 when a coordinated Tea Party Tax Day protest drew more than 1 million protestors in more than 900 cities across the U.S., according to the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition. Hundreds of tea party groups have formed across the U.S. since then. And while they are loosely linked by their shared goals of smaller government, fiscal responsibility and free markets, the groups are generally independent, grassroots organizations run by volunteers.
But while tea party-supported candidates won big during the 2010 elections, the groups did not see nearly as much success in 2012. Many political pundits had opined that the tea party movement's power was fading.
How Scandal Re-Ignites Group
The scandal erupted in mid-May when the findings of an audit, conducted by the U.S. Treasury's Inspector General for Tax Administration, publicly revealed that an IRS office in Cincinnati had improperly targeted groups with conservative terms in their names that had applied for tax-exempt status.
The disclosure ignited a political firestorm that has lead to resignations, a U.S. Justice Department investigation and Congressional hearings trying to determine who ordered the targeting and who in Washington knew about it.
The scandal has helped the tea party movement in two fundamental ways, Beaupre said.
For organizers and true believers, the scandal confirms the movement's beliefs about the overreach of big government, he said.
"It puts a sense of passion where the light was getting dimmer," he said. "And I think this brightened everything up."
It also helps people outside the movement better understand the Tea Party's point of view, Beaupre said.
The key for the movement now will be leveraging the scandal and the new spotlight it brings, he said.
Leaders in conservative groups across the region said they plan to do just that.
Donations at a Liberty Township Tea Party meeting earlier this month were "very strong," generating enough money to send a local youth to a summer camp at the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., said Tim Savaglio, one of the group's board members.
That was despite the fact that, after more than three years of waiting, the group still has not received a ruling on its application for 501(c)(3) status, meaning that donations are not tax deductible.
But even more important than money, the scandal is providing conservative groups a "teachable moment," said Wilson of the Kentucky 9/12 Project in Georgetown.
"It is shining a light on issues of big government and the overreach of big government," he said. "It's shining the light on a lot of those issues that people who align themselves with conservative values have been saying for the past four years."
How long that light shines will depend on how long the attention from the mainstream media lasts, said George Brunemann, former president of the Cincinnati Tea Party.
The fact that Justice Department's secret investigation of the Associated Press came to light the week before the IRS scandal broke has helped keep reporters interested, Brunemann said. "They upset the bees in the hive," he said.
Many reporters have interviewed Brunemann. The IRS audited him and his wife, and an agent told them it was because of their connection to the local tea party group. His wife used to be treasurer.
"This (scandal) has finally given us a bigger stage to work on," Brunemann said. "The fact that Cincinnati has become ground zero is sort of embarrassing and helpful at the same time."
As much as the IRS scandal is helping conservative groups across the nation, however, they may need to moderate their message to grow their influence and win more elections, Xavier's Beaupre said.
"It's an opportunity for them to reach beyond the circle that they have," he said. "While they're energized and passionate about their beliefs now, they may want to temper it a little bit to increase the circumference of the circle."