The petitions that started surfacing online over a year ago were as incendiary as they were urgent, begging recipients to sign up to “Boot Boehner,” “Dump McConnell,” “Drop a Truth-Bomb on Kevin McCarthy” and “Fire Paul Ryan.” The calls to oust Republican leaders in Congress did not come from Democrats. They came from conservative websites and bloggers who have helped stoke a grass-roots rebellion to make Congress more conservative, a fevered continuation of the six-year Tea Party movement. But these politically charged appeals to conservatives around the country were often accompanied by a solicitation for money, and the ultimate beneficiaries, records suggest, are the consultants who created the campaigns rather than the causes they are promoting.
In recent years, prominent Republican figures like Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich have used their name, mailing lists, and credibility with Republican donors to create lucrative and ethically dubious operations. In many instances, they've sent out highly "questionable," spam-like messages that appear to be scams.
But these kinds of efforts aren't limited to former candidates. The New York Times reports today on equally alarming phenomenon involving far-right outfits.
The article highlighted a variety of entities -- the Tea Party Leadership Fund, the Madison Project, the Tea Party Patriots, et al -- that have "turned the attack on the Republican leadership into a fund-raising tool."
And while it's hardly unusual for political action committees and similar groups looking for donors to advance a cause, the Times reported that "many of these petition drives have a history of spending most of the money they raise on consulting firms, as opposed to using it to support political candidates, a stark contrast to how most PACs function."
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, went so far as to say, “There needs to be an investigation into these groups. Where does the money go?”
The answer isn't a complete mystery. The Times noted, for example, an effort from the Tea Party Leadership Fund, which launched an online petition this year to force House Speaker John Boehner's ouster. Those who signed the petition gave up their contact information -- which is then added to mailing lists that are themselves lucrative -- and were then directed to an online page that encouraged conservatives to make a contribution.
But according to the NYT's reporting, of the $6.7 million raised by the Tea Party Leadership Fund over the last couple of years, "only about $910,000 has been spent on conservative Republican candidates it supports," while nearly all of the rest "has been spent on consulting firms involved in helping collect the donations."
The same article highlighted the Tea Party Patriots, which raised $14.4 million in the last election cycle, while "only about 10 percent of that went to so-called independent expenditures to support conservative Republicans, with most of the rest going to pay staff members and consultants."
All of this is consistent with a Politico report in January, which noted a series of Tea Party-affiliated PACs that raised $43 million -- mostly from small donors -- but "spent only $3 million on ads and contributions" to boost far-right candidates.
It led Slate's Jamelle Bouie to note this morning that "a good deal of conservative politics is an elaborate scam for cash."
Or as MSNBC's Chris Hayes put it a couple of years ago, “[M]uch of movement conservatism is a con and the base are the marks.”