Trouble is simmering in the Tea Party movement over a struggle with identity theft.
In Connecticut, Florida and Nevada, the Tea Party has been registered as a third political party for the 2010 election. All three parties are already involved in either recruiting candidates or preparing their campaigns for statewide races in November.
The problem? In Florida and Nevada, the newly formed third parties appear to have little or no connection to the actual Tea Party movement. Longtime Tea Party leaders say they were as shocked as anyone to learn of the third parties, especially when they found out that the people in charge had no previous involvement in Tea Party activities.
What’s more, the Tea Party has long held that it isn’t interested in becoming a third party, preferring to influence the debate by working through the existing two-party system.
"We believe the identity of the Florida Tea Party has been hijacked by cynical foes," said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party.
Mr. Wilkinson’s group is part of a coalition that’s suing the third party, asking a federal judge to force the Tea Party party to change its name. The lawsuit also claims that leaders of the third party have threatened the grassroots organizations with trademark litigation in an effort to block them from using the Tea Party name.
All this illustrates that the Tea Party may have grown too big for its britches. The very qualities that have helped transform the Tea Party into a political juggernaut–its lack of central organization, its wide-open invitation for anyone to start their own local group–make it vulnerable to abuse by those with an agenda that extends beyond fiscal conservatism.
"These are growth pains of what must be considered the most powerful political movement of our time," said Michael Caputo, a public-relations consultant who’s representing the Florida Tea Party movement free of charge. "You’re going to find profiteers, you’re going to attract scammers."
A Rasmussen Reports poll released in December found that in a generic match-up, a Tea Party candidate would defeat the Republican. Even a Tea Party candidate with no chance of winning, however, can introduce turmoil into a close political contest.
The newly formed Tea Party of Nevada has already entered a candidate, Jon Ashjian, in the Senate race, which Republicans view as a maneuver to boost the prospects of embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Reid trails badly in the polls to both of the leading Republican candidates, state Sen. Sue Lowden and small-business owner and former UNLV basketball star Danny Tarkanian. In a tight general election, a Tea Party candidate who draws even small percentage of the vote could tip the race in Reid’s favor.
The Tea Party of Nevada has released almost no information about its plans or activities. The group’s secretary, Las Vegas attorney Barry Levinson, told the Las Vegas Sun that the party was authentic and that "Harry Reid had nothing to do with it."
Bob Ruckman, chairman of the Clark County Republicans, isn’t buying it. "Believe me, they will get to the bottom of this, and when they do, these people are going to be very embarrassed," he said.
Meanwhile, the Florida party was launched by a group of Republican campaign consultants who registered the name "Tea Party" in August 2009. That party has since endorsed the candidacy of state Sen. Paula Dockery, who’s running in the Republican primary for governor–even though her chief opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum, is considered more fiscally conservative and therefore more in line with Tea Party principles.
"I just think they’re going to try to use this third party for endorsement purposes," said Mr. Wilkinson. "Or they’re going to extort conservative politicians–‘If you don’t buy our consulting services, we’ll run a Tea Party candidate against you.’"
Frederic O’Neal, chairman of Florida’s third-party Tea Party, insisted that the party was a genuine outgrowth of the movement and that his critics were beholden to the Republican Party. He also said the Florida Tea Party wouldn’t run candidates against an incumbent fiscal conservative in order to avoid splitting the vote.
"There are organizations in the Tea Party movement in Florida that are clearly Republican front organizations. They want to corral the Tea Party movement," said Mr. O’Neal.
Avoiding such confusion in the future won’t be easy. Filing to trademark the Tea Party name isn’t a realistic option. "Our advice from counsel is that it would be difficult to trademark the name unless you’re from Boston and you’re about 220 years old," said Mr. Caputo.
A victory in the Florida case could provide the legal precedent necessary to stop future third parties from using the name. Until then, Tea Party activists say they’re just trying to spread the word among their members to steer clear of any Tea Party parties.
"The Tea Party isn’t about third parties. When we find out about them, we contact our members and the media and let them know," said Shelby Blakely, a leader of the Tea Party Patriots, viewed as the largest national Tea Party group. "If it wasn’t so hilarious, it would be pathetic."