Calls for candidate Peg Dunmire to quit the 8th Congressional District race have unleashed a new round of tea party infighting that threatens to dilute the movement's political power across Florida.
The Central Florida Tea Party Council, an alliance of Orlando-area tea movement leaders, last week demanded that TEA Party candidate Dunmire withdraw her bid to unseat Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson.
Tea activists Tom Tillison and Jason Hoyt cited "financial connections" between Grayson and the Florida TEA ("Taxed Enough Already") Party, which they branded "a tea party in name only."
Both Dunmire and TEA Party Chairman Frederic O'Neal denied any financial links to Grayson, who has no primary opposition.
Dunmire, a former Republican and self-described conservative, said, "I have no intention of withdrawing. I find it appalling that these supposed patriots think their intimidation tactics will make me withdraw."
O'Neal, whose party has been sued in federal court by 33 "tea" organizations and individuals over use of the name, said the attack on Dunmire is revealing.
"The way they're acting, it seems they're more afraid of Peg being elected than Grayson being elected," O'Neal said.
The Orlando dustup may be unique in the United States. Where tea partiers have energized conservatives in races across the country, the tea-TEA clashes in Florida have badly splintered the right and left voters wondering what the "tea" brand really stands for.
The Orlando Tea Party Council insists that Dunmire and O'Neal's TEA Party are bent on ruining Republican hopes of reclaiming the 8th District.
This appears to be nothing less than a veiled ploy by Mr. Grayson to create a split in the conservative vote and guarantee himself another two years of destructive liberal politics," said CFTP Council member Barbara Seidenberg.
Tillison, who edits the Orlando Political Press Web site, and Hoyt, co-host of the Tea Party Patriots Live radio program in Central Florida, have worked for one of the seven Republican candidates in the Aug. 24 primary.
"I was on the payroll of Todd Long's campaign.I worked two days a week, primarily doing precinct walks, stuffing letters, etc. This was a necessarysecondary source of income," said Tillison, who also sits on the Orange County Republican Executive Committee.
"I am no longer working for the campaign," he stated in an e-mail.
Hoyt, who did not respond to an inquiry from Sunshine State News, reportedly contracted on a one-time basis to assist in developing Long's campaign Web site.
(Long recently was endorsed by Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio for taking a strong stand on illegal immigration. Long said, " We will not be fooled any longer by these Republican candidates who are funded by big business, like illegal immigration and want cheap, illegal labor.)
Mike Caputo, a South Florida-based Republican consultant aligned with the tea movement, said such campaign work is not unusual for political activists -- in or out of tea.
"That's how people in the business of politics make their money," he said.
O'Neal said ongoing political and legal assaults against his group reflect desperation in the GOP ranks.
He charged that Republicans are funding efforts to harass the TEA Party with frivolous lawsuits in court and to run "dark ops" campaigns against it in the field.
"To suggest that these are disinterested people without an agenda is bogus. They know the Republican brand is so damaged that a new party will rise on the right," O'Neal said.
Everett Wilkinson, state director of the South Florida Tea Party, recently raised the stakes in the intramural squabble when he incorporated "Florida Tea Party LLC" and began calling himself "chairman of the Florida Tea Party" -- the exact title used by O'Neal, whom Wilkinson is suing over use of the party name.
When asked who was paying attorney Frank Herrera to pursue the federal lawsuit, Wilkinson responded that the Miami trademark lawyer was working "pro-bono."
But Caputo, currently working on Republican campaigns in New York, told Sunshine State News on Friday that he has been paying Herrera "$20,000 a month." When asked where that money came from, Caputo replied, "Out of my own pocket."
Herrera says it is his policy not to speak to the press.
Caputo doubts that O'Neal's party -- which has fielded 15 legislative candidates and three congressional hopefuls -- will be Florida conservatives' cup of tea.
"They've already lost candidates and they're not going to win any races. After Nov. 2, you'll never hear of them again," Caputo predicted.
TEA candidates in state House District 11 and state Senate District 30 withdrew and failed to qualify, respectively.
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 801-5341.