In Mississippi, Jenny Beth Martin and Tea Party Patriots try to prove their worth


Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, knocks on doors in support of Senate candidate Chris McDaniel in Jackson, Miss., on June 17. (Edmund D. Fountain/For The Washington Post)

Never mind that it’s 92 degrees and nearing the end of the day: Jenny Beth Martin has started jogging between houses.

“I’ve gotta get my steps,” she calls back to the rented Suburban with the Florida license plates that has been shuttling her around with the air-
conditioning set to full blast.

In from Georgia, Martin has been spending much of the past three weeks in the state, holding conferences, making fundraising calls, meeting with local chapters of the tea party, and yes, walking door-to-door to turn out the vote for conservative Senate hopeful Chris McDaniel. But unlike most volunteers here, as the head of the national Tea Party Patriots, a group she co-founded and helped bring to national prominence, she’s on track to make $450,000 this year doing all this, according to the latest Federal Election Commission reports and Internal Revenue Service filings. And to top that off, the group’s latest disclosures also note that she is allowed to travel first-class on any domestic flight she takes as president of the organization — although her lawyer says she doesn’t take advantage of the perk.

So, clad in what looks like a black tennis outfit, with a pair of oversized sunglasses crowning her long straight hair and a week out from the runoff primary election between McDaniel and incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran, Martin wants more than to hit 10,000 steps a day: She’s trying to prove her worth.

Earlier this month, her group, along with all the national tea party groups, missed out on the biggest story of the year.


Tea Party Patriots National Coordinator Jenny Beth Martin, right, talks with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), left, during a rally outside the Supreme Court on March 28, 2012. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“People say this is a big tea party victory,” Laura Ingraham said on Fox News about David Brat’s historic Republican primary win in Virginia against House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “So people, understand this: The national Tea Party Network, Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks — I don’t believe any of these organizations did anything for Dave Brat. Dave Brat couldn’t get Jenny Beth Martin, who is the head of the Tea Party Patriots, the largest tea party organization in the country — he couldn’t get her on the phone.”

Martin, 43, acknowledges that the organization did not put any money behind Brat. She says she met with him before the primary to say that they were all in on Mississippi, a marquee race with much better polling. And while she says she has no regrets about the decision, Ingraham’s criticisms clearly stung.

“She didn’t know, she never talked to me,” Martin says after an elderly man shouts from his window to just leave whatever she was handing out by the door. “She was misinformed.”

A few nights earlier, Martin’s communications director, Kevin Broughton, over Coors Light and vodka shots, had been more emphatic.

“When did Laura Ingraham become Chris Matthews?” he asked, smoking a cigarette in one of the last bars in Jackson that allow it. “When did she love to hear the sound of her own voice so much?”

Such is the anguish of the Tea Party Patriots. The left hates them, the establishment wants to “crush” them (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s word), and now conservative radio and Fox News have started calling them out. All this on the heels of a report in The Washington Post that national tea party groups were raking in money without doling much out to candidates themselves.

But here is what the Tea Party Patriots have going for them: McDaniel, a state senator, forced 36-year incumbent Cochran into a runoff, and if McDaniel wins, national tea party groups will have had a lot to do with it. By Martin’s count, they have pumped almost $800,000 into the Mississippi race through the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, and McDaniel has been either up or in a dead heat in the latest polls. Ahead of the runoff, Martin met with other like-minded groups so they don’t double up on work: FreedomWorks takes care of the lawn signs, for example, while Tea Party Patriots takes care of the door hangers. Other national organizations with ties to the tea party have spent big down here: The Senate Conservatives Action PAC has coughed up about $1.3 million and Club for Growth an additional $3 million.

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Their money and their organization couple well with the fervor of local tea party chapters in the state. While Cochran stumps on his years of bringing federal spending back to Mississippi, the McDaniel campaign has tapped into a feeling that the country is slipping away. His bet: More voters will turn out for a revolution than highway spending.

Which is why, about 10 miles away, on a highway outside of Jackson, a group of about 30 from the central Mississippi tea party spent the day standing in the 90-
degree heat holding signs supporting McDaniel for Senate.

“This is about character, honor and integrity that used to be a hallmark of the country,” says Robert Edward Kenney, a man in a wheelchair with a big white beard and a confederate-flag-inspired bandana. “The way we are being portrayed is like we’re domestic terrorists with baby’s veins and guts hanging out of our teeth. They say we are fringe — do I look fringe to you?”

Fighting a battle greater than just an election, and doing so while the rest of the country tries to keep them down: This was a central theme in conversations with more than a dozen local tea party activists. And in McDaniel, a conservative in the mold of Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) or Mike Lee (Utah) — two men he mentions on the stump regularly — they see someone who will take their voice to Washington.

“Let’s change the entire United States government from right here in Mississippi,” McDaniel says to a crowd of cheering supporters outside of Jackson on Wednesday evening.

It clearly resonates.

“He said more in that one speech than Senator Cochran has said during his entire time in the Senate,” says Raymond Jones, a 74-year-old retiree.

As Jones expounds on how Republicans had left behind conservative values, permitted abortions to happen in the state, were going to allow amnesty to undocumented immigrants and were gutting the military, his wife, whom he lovingly calls “the Mouth of the South,” came over to say that when he’s done bugging someone from the “lamestream media,” she had a seat saved for him.

“She and I are not Republican, but sometimes you don’t have a choice,” he says. “We like our choice this time.”

It’s the first time in a while that many members of the Mississippi tea party remember feeling excited.

“This would be huge for the tea party,” says Brad Cooney, who blogs about mixed martial arts and politics and sports a tattoo of Jesus wearing boxing gloves. “It would get people fired up again. We’ve taken a lot of heat. The liberal media did a good job painting a picture that the tea party people are racist, and I think that hurt. We could use a win.”

This is something the national tea party organizations can share with the local guys. Martin has been involved since the beginning, and from financial hardships, to lawsuits, to tawdry personal infighting, she’s seen it all.

Before Martin was the president of the Tea Party Patriots, she was a software manager who quit her job to get fertility treatments and give birth to twins. The temp agency of her husband, Lee Martin, went belly-up, leaving the couple with a debt of more than $500,000 to the IRS. They filed for bankruptcy around the time of the Wall Street bailout.

“I was very frustrated by the TARP bill, because nobody bailed us out, and we weren’t looking for a bailout,” Martin says in a coffee shop outside of Jackson. It’s a message she uses often, saying that no one bailed out her husband’s company when it failed. As for being bailed out themselves, Martin has had to publicly contend with the fact that she and her husband filed for bankruptcy, a bailout of its own sort. Less well known is the fact that her husband accepted unemployment for a time, something else she has explained.

“I’ve never said that there should be no safety net,” she says. “That decision was more difficult for him than the decision not to stay in our house. . . . We were scraping by.”

She helped start an organization that would change all of that. At rock bottom, Martin and her husband cleaned houses to get by. Then, Rick Santelli, a CNBC commentator covering financial markets, gave his famous rant, asking viewers: “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?”

That resonated with Martin, as did Santelli’s use of the term “tea party.” “We were quite literally cleaning our neighbor’s house so they wouldn’t have to take care of us,” she says. Inspired, Martin and Amy Kremer, a former flight attendant also from a suburb of Atlanta, organized a conference call to talk about having such a tea party.

What started as about 20 people has grown into a network of thousands. The group has raised about $30 million this year if you combine their various fundraising apparatuses. But the growth of the organization didn’t come without pitfalls or drama.

Kremer was voted off the board in 2009 after joining a second tea party group, the Tea Party Express, and shortly thereafter, the Tea Party Patriots sued her in an intellectual property dispute. That dispute, according to TPP lawyer Deborah Ausburn, ended with Kremer not getting any rights to the name Tea Party Patriots. Then, according to court documents in Cherokee County, Ga., in October 2010, Lee Martin allegedly used a pseudonym to post comments on Facebook, asserting that Kremer’s boyfriend had raped Kremer’s daughter, who was then a minor. He also said that when Kremer found out, she kicked her daughter out of the house. The Kremers denied all claims of an alleged sexual assault.

The comments triggered a series of lawsuits, including three that are pending in which Kremer and her boyfriend deny the alleged sexual assault and accuse Lee Martin and the Tea Party Patriots of libel. (According to court documents, Lee Martin admitted to writing a Facebook post with similar language, but he argued that he believed what he wrote to be true and that his comments were made “in the context of a free-wheeling and gloves-off online debate”; Jenny Beth Martin was dropped from the suits because of a lack of evidence tying her to the episode.)

Kylie, Kremer’s daughter, also told The Post that the comments were “100 percent inaccurate.” Although she settled one lawsuit for $25,000, she has not forgiven.

“There’s a special place in hell for them,” Kylie Kremer, now 23, said over the phone in her first interview about the case. “They are master manipulators, and they are vindictive. I think if people knew who they were giving their money to and what it was being used for, they would think twice.”

Jenny Beth Martin refused to comment about Kylie Kremer, saying that she did not want to talk about pending litigation. But the Tea Party Patriots dismiss such criticism of their spending, noting that in the Mississippi race they have paid for radio and television ads, paid for research about Cochran living at the same address as a staff member, and bought a Web site that details his “questionable” travel at WheresThad.com. As for Martin’s salary, her lawyer, Cleta Mitchell, says via e-mail: “Jenny Beth works her tail off, travels constantly, sleeps about 4 hours per night — runs two very demanding organizations and is paid by each separately to run them. . . . Whatever it is that she’s paid, it is not enough in my opinion.”

Folks on the ground say they are pleased with the group’s performance.

“I’ve seen the training they’ve given us. I don’t see them as giving sparingly,” says Grant Sowell, who heads the Tupelo Tea Party. “None of us get that caught up in that money thing. We see the fruit of what they’re doing, so I don’t question that.”

In any case, there is more at stake in this campaign than small-bore money disputes, McDaniel supporters say. This is more than an election, it’s about a way of life. “This used to be a place that encouraged the ability to solve your own problems,” says Kenney, the bearded man with the bandana. Kenney lives in a rough part of Jackson, a city he says has “become essentially lawless, because unlike in areas around it, it doesn’t emphasize family.”

But if Kenney were to close his eyes and imagine the perfect Mississippi, the kind of place where the sun sets over verdant fields and dust kicks up from a gravel road, where friends and family get together under a big barn to eat hush puppies and deep-fried catfish and where someone might run into an old football coach they haven’t seen in years . . . he would be imagining the Cochran campaign stop that was happening just 20 miles down the road.

There, Cochran stands on the pickup bed while his friends in Mississippi’s high places — Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Commissioner of Agriculture Cindy Hyde-Smith and Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall — brag about how much money he has brought to the state.

“Welcome to the real Mississippi campaign,” Cochran spokesman Jordan Russell says (he was the guy who ran into his football coach). Cochran nods slowly while his friends speak, takes the microphone when it is handed to him and says in a quiet, contented voice: “Thank you for your generous — if not exaggerated to some extent — comments. I liked it.”

It all felt so comfortable, so familiar. And maybe that’s the problem.

And this is what Martin and other tea partiers are banking on. Mississippi has perennially ranked last in categories including median family income and various health and education metrics, while also topping Gallup’s list of most conservative states. That’s a tough place for a moderate senator who hasn’t seen the state climbing the ranks.

“This is big,” Martin says. “It’s an example of somebody who has so much power but forgets that they have it because of the people. This can be a reminder to everyone.”

Matea Gold contributed to this report

Ben Terris is a writer in the Washington Post's Style section with a focus on national politics.
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