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New media help conservatives get their anti-Obama message out

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010; A01

In November, the morning after Election Day, a conservative blogger in Georgia blasted an e-mail to 65,000 people.

Erick Erickson's 5 a.m. "Morning Briefing" seemed counterintuitive -- the election of a Democrat to a U.S. House seat in Upstate New York held by Republicans for more than a century, he wrote, was "a huge win for conservatives."

Yet the missive immediately was posted online by the conservative publication Human Events, a corporate sibling of Erickson's blog, RedState. It next reached the Web site of the American Spectator magazine, whose publisher, Alfred S. Regnery, sits on the board of the conservative publishing house that owns RedState and Human Events.

Ricocheting inside the Beltway, Erickson's analysis fueled discussion later that morning at two influential weekly meetings of D.C. conservatives. Next, it was endorsed by radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, considered by many conservatives the ultimate authority. "We kept a horrible Republican from possibly winning," Limbaugh said.

The ability of a single e-mail to shape a message illustrates the power of the conservative network -- loosely affiliated blogs, radio hosts, "tea-party" organizers and D.C. institutions that are binding together to fuel opposition to President Obama and, sometimes, to Republicans.

With the Democratic defeat in the recent special senatorial election in Massachusetts, engineered in part by tea-party activists working with several Beltway-based groups, the conservative movement is more energized than it has been in years.

It is also more unified. Disputes festered between economic and social conservatives during the Bush years, but they have eased amid what all sides decry as Obama's liberal agenda. "Nothing unites like a common enemy," said Colin Hanna, president of the conservative group Let Freedom Ring.

The movement that many date to the 1955 founding of William F. Buckley's venerable National Review now spreads through new media. Learning from the Democratic "Net roots," conservatives use Twitter and Facebook to plan such events as the recent demonstrations against health-care reform at the Capitol.

"We're experts at [finding] pro-lifers on Facebook," said Kristan Hawkins, executive director of Arlington-based Students for Life of America, and one of numerous social conservatives who have worked closely with economic conservatives to fight Democratic health bills.

Such coordination is increasing. Inside the Beltway, much of it is fueled by the Conservative Action Project (CAP), a new group of conservative leaders chaired by Reagan-era attorney general Edwin Meese III. CAP, whose influential memos "for the movement" circulate on Capitol Hill, is an offshoot of the Council for National Policy, a highly secretive organization of conservative leaders and donors.

"There is a definite sense that the various parts of the conservative movement are coming together," said Regnery, a leading CAP member.

CAP has worked with some of the movement's key national players, who include bloggers such as Erickson and Michelle Malkin and the State Policy Network, a consortium of 57 conservative and libertarian think tanks. One of them, the Pelican Institute for Public Policy in New Orleans, recently hosted a speech by James O'Keefe, the conservative activist charged last week with entering a federal building under false pretenses in an alleged plot to tamper with telephones in the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

O'Keefe formerly worked at the Arlington-based Leadership Institute, which trains conservative leaders, and attended "10 different" institute schools, said Morton Blackwell, the institute's president. He said his organization "found" O'Keefe when O'Keefe was a student at Rutgers University.

The most prominent outside-the-Beltway force is the tea-party movement. "We're the grass-roots, boots-on-the-ground army," said Jenny Beth Martin, a Tea Party Patriots national coordinator. "If the D.C. groups have a message that resonates with our people, we work hard to help get it out."

Beltway organizations have had more involvement in the tea parties, long portrayed as largely organic expressions of populist anger, than most conservatives have acknowledged. The first nationwide tea parties on Feb. 27 were co-sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform, whose president, Grover Norquist, is a paragon of the D.C. conservative establishment, and the Arlington-based American Spectator.

The Spectator's then-managing editor organized the rally near the White House that day, according to promotional materials and participants.

Some conservatives object to talk of coordination, and especially of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," a term used by Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1998 to describe her husband's political enemies, and recently repeated by former president Bill Clinton about Obama.

"There is no conservative cabal, where the talk-radio guys get together with the Internet guys, who get together with the Fox News guys, who get together with a Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, and the talking points go out," said Mark Levin, a leading conservative talk-radio host.

Others say the caricature has elements of truth. "What was once a very centralized movement is now very diffuse, across the country," said Erickson, whose "Morning Briefing Emails" have grown from 498 subscribers when they started in February to nearly 70,000. "There isn't a centralized right-wing conspiracy, but it really is a vast right-wing conspiracy."

What is unclear is whether the energy on the right will benefit the Republican Party. Many conservatives, especially tea-party groups, are deeply suspicious of party moderates, and the results of November's House race in Upstate New York still resonate. Conservative opposition to the Republican candidate, state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, helped get Democrat Bill Owens elected.

"Conservatives could care less if there's an R in front of your name," said Tom Gaitens, a Florida member of Glenn Beck's 9.12 Project, which the Fox News host -- a leading Obama critic -- announced on the air in March. It has hundreds of chapters that work with tea-party groups.

Inside the Beltway

The conference room is filled with young conservatives who gather around a table. Food from Chick-fil-A (founded by a prominent Christian leader ) is spread out in the back, under framed photos of Ronald Reagan and other movement heroes. It's the weekly "bloggers briefing" at the Heritage Foundation, the D.C. conservative think tank.

"This is a great networking opportunity," says Don Irvine, chairman of the conservative media watchdog group Accuracy in Media, who is Tweeting the meeting.

This week's guest: Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). After blasting the administration's "unprecedented power grab," he answers a question from a Washington Times online producer, who says the president's plan to conduct terrorism trials in Manhattan is being "pushed down New Yorkers' throats."

"I think stuffing it down New York's throat is a timid way to say it," DeMint responds.

Members of the more than 100 Beltway conservative groups use such meetings to coordinate strategy. Recently, that has meant stopping Democratic priorities such as health care and cap-and-trade legislation.

Wednesdays are the primary nexus. At 7:30 a.m., members of the Conservative Action Project gather at the Family Research Council, a social conservative group.

CAP grew out of a series of meetings of conservatives, determined to engineer a political comeback, in the weeks after Obama's election. One took place during a Council for National Policy meeting at a D.C. hotel, conservatives said. The secretive council was formed in the early 1980s to coordinate what was then called the "New Right."

Key players in CAP, members said, include Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway; Greg Mueller, president of CRC Public Relations; and former congressman David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.). Its only paid staff member is Patrick Pizzella, an official in the George W. Bush administration, who works out of the Council for National Policy offices.

Among CAP's projects was supporting the Health Care Freedom Coalition, whose more than 50 economic and social conservative groups quietly built health-care opposition, CAP members said. The coalition is a spinoff of FreedomWorks, the D.C.-based group that works extensively with tea-party activists.

CAP also worked unsuccessfully to defeat David F. Hamilton, Obama's first appellate judicial nominee. A Nov. 9 CAP memo calling Hamilton "an ideologue first and a jurist second" helped trigger blog blasts from Erickson and an anti-Hamilton speech at the conservative Federalist Society by Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Judiciary Committee Republican.

Another prime networking venue is the Wednesday breakfast at Americans for Tax Reform, a D.C. institution led by Norquist. Among the speakers at a recent "Grover meeting," as they are known, were Republican congressional candidates; the president of the Jesse Helms Center; and Christine Hall of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who said her organization was offering former vice president Al Gore $500 to debate global warming.

"We're challenging Gore to a duel," she said to laughter.

About 90 minutes in, people filed out and headed to Ebenezer's Coffeehouse, near Union Station. There they attended the weekly "Weyrich lunch," named for the person who started the meetings, conservative veteran Paul M. Weyrich, who died in 2008.

Conservatives say the invitation-only lunch allows strategic planning with Republican congressional staff members. One example: an amendment in July from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) that would have allowed people to carry concealed firearms across state lines. It divided Democrats but fell just short of passage. "That was really under the radar until it got to the Weyrich meeting, and everyone said, 'Hey, we need to help Thune out on this,' " Erickson said.

There is much crossover among leading D.C. organizations. Tony Perkins, the Family Research Council president who hosts CAP meetings, is a board member of the Council for National Policy, the organization's most recent tax filings show. Becky Norton Dunlop, the council's president, is a key CAP member -- and a Heritage Foundation vice president. Blackwell is a director of CNP Action, a sister organization to the Council for National Policy.

Outside the Beltway

A world away from the meeting circuit in D.C., outrage mounted over government spending.

It was first directed at the Bush administration's $700 billion financial bailout in October 2008, which prompted the formation of online conservative groups such as Top Conservatives on Twitter, activists said.

Such grass-roots groups would spawn the tea-party movement. But they had help from the start.

The first protest, against Obama's $787 billion stimulus package, was in early February in Florida, according to Brendan Steinhauser, the D.C.-based director of state and federal campaigns at FreedomWorks, chaired by former House Republican leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.). After CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli suggested a tea party during his on-air rant against government bailouts on Feb. 19, Steinhauser and another FreedomWorks staff member conferred with activists planning the first tea parties for Feb. 27. Steinhauser then wrote a tea party organizing primer, which was posted on the FreedomWorks Web site and Malkin's site.

"It sort of exploded from there," Steinhauser said. FreedomWorks' ongoing involvement in tea parties has been known for months, but its role in helping create the movement is far less publicized.

Norquist said his group co-sponsored the Feb. 27 rallies after being asked by organizers at his Wednesday breakfast. "We hoped it would catch on," he said.

Martin, the Tea Party Patriots coordinator, said organizers "were trying to get some existing organizations to endorse what we were doing. It kind of lent credibility."

She acknowledged that may not appear to "jibe" with portrayals of the movement as organic but pointed out that hundreds of local tea-party groups have since sprung up.

Yet the tea party-Beltway nexus continues. Tea-party groups held a health-care town hall meeting at Norquist's offices in June, and Martin said his group, the Heritage Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union "have been helpful, sometimes by saying, 'Here are talking points we've created.' "

Outside the Beltway, tea parties have been aided by the State Policy Network's think tanks, which have supplied rally speakers and intellectual ammunition. The think tanks, which numbered 14 two decades ago, push conservative legislative priorities in states.

An ally of the policy network is the little-known Sam Adams Alliance in Chicago, formed by the onetime Libertarian Party national director. It works with online activists and provided nearly $1 million to spin off two other rising groups.

One, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, is run by the former head of the North Dakota Republican Party and operates Web sites that cover local news in several states. Another group, American Majority, is headed by Ned Ryun, son of former congressman Jim Ryun (R-Kan.). It has trained several thousand tea-party activists.

Interaction

The forces inside and outside the Beltway are interacting more than ever.

For example, Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips was at an anti-health-reform rally in Arkansas when his BlackBerry buzzed. It was an e-mail from the Heritage Foundation, blasting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's just-released 1,990-page health bill.

Phillips, whose group works closely with tea-party activists, read portions of it at the rally. Heritage also is spreading the conservative message to talk radio. It supplies research to Limbaugh and conservative host Sean Hannity, who direct listeners to Heritage's Web site.

Another inside-outside force is CRC, the Alexandria firm headed by Mueller, who was Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign communications director. It works with the movement's many strands, inundates journalists with e-mails and uses social networking to drive the message.

Among CRC's clients is L. Brent Bozell III, who started the Media Research Center in Alexandria in 1987 with one black-and-white TV to monitor perceived liberal media bias. Today, he operates a mini-empire with seven Web sites, including Eyeblast.tv, a conservative version of YouTube.

"When you are on the outs, and we are completely on the outs in Washington, we've got nothing to lose," Bozell said. "It's a heckuva lot more fun."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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