For tea party, midterms present a choice between ideals, pragmatism

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010; 2:50 PM

FROG JUMP, TENN. -- But for one important detail, Stephen Fincher could be a perfect "tea party" candidate: a gospel-singing cotton farmer from this tiny hamlet in western Tennessee, seeking to right the listing ship of Washington with a commitment to lower taxes and smaller government.

The detail? Fincher accepts roughly $200,000 in farm subsidies each year.

Some tea party activists say Fincher, a Republican candidate in Tennessee's 8th Congressional District, isn't "pure" enough to deserve the backing of a movement built on the idea that government must spend less. But others have pledged their support, highlighting a division over what constitutes orthodoxy in the amorphous cause -- and who gets to decide.

As congressional primary campaigns gear up across the nation, tea party activists face some of their first big choices since coalescing last year in opposition to President Obama, health-care reform and growing federal spending: picking candidates. In many cases, they will have to decide between purity and pragmatism, between ideals and organization.

And their choices will provide clues to the long-term fate of the movement. Will mainstream Republicans, with their bigger budgets and more polished candidates, harness the tea party's energy at the expense of home-grown activism? And for whom would that be a victory -- the Republicans, the tea party or both?

"This effort is to try to get the Republican Party to try to give us more conservative candidates," said David Nance, a Fincher supporter and the founder of the Gibson County Patriots, in Jackson, Tenn. "A few days ago, I was watching two candidates on one of the news channels, and basically they were kind of sparring over which one was the more conservative. Now that tells me that something's working."

In the yellow cinder-block meeting room of the Munford, Tenn., municipal building, the Tipton County Tea Party convened on a recent evening to raise money for billboards, organize a tax day protest and encourage attendance at a state convention planned for Gatlinburg at the end of May.

About 40 people came to the meeting. They cheered when the organizer, Vince DiCello, told a long-winded joke about a new metal called Pelosium, after Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ("its mass keeps getting heavier"). And they murmured in disapproval when he passed around a photograph of Obama with his shoes off -- evidence, DiCello said, that the president prays with Muslims but not Christians ("That's because he is a Muslim," one audience member called out).

But when DiCello asked for donations to place conservative messages on highway billboards statewide, he was met with skepticism. "Are these all going to be in West Tennessee?" one person asked. "Where is the money going?" asked another.

"We're collecting money individually as tea party groups," DiCello replied. Sensing the suspicion in the room, he added: "These people are not going to take our money and steal it."

That some were unconvinced illustrates the movement's mistrust of centralized power. But if a dozen groups across Tennessee can't collect money for billboards, how can they organize a successful election campaign or grow into a permanent political force?

'That's hypocritical'

These activists mistrust Fincher because he is the anointed candidate of national Republicans and because of those farm subsidies. Jim Tomasik, a leader of the Mid-South Tea Party in Cordova, Tenn., is heading perhaps the most organized effort to portray Fincher as a welfare-farmer who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from other subsidy-receiving farmers.

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