Tea party groups aim to hold new legislators to campaign promises

A variety of new faces showed up for the first day of the "lame duck" session in Congress.
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 10:29 PM

The conservative tea party groups that helped elect dozens of new candidates to Congress on Nov. 2 are now delivering a warning to them: We're watching you.

At least three right-leaning organizations staged orientation sessions for incoming members of Congress over the weekend to urge them to stick to the low-tax, small-government principles on which they ran. On Monday, one of the groups, Americans for Prosperity, held a rally on Capitol Hill to remind lawmakers of the signal voters sent on Election Day. If the new members don't vote the way they promised they would, the group's leaders vowed, they will work just as hard to get them out of Congress as they did to get them in. At one point, the crowd broke into a chant: "We're watching!"

Perhaps no group is doing more to keep Republican members in line than FreedomWorks. The Washington-based organization, led by former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.), is trying to establish itself as the tea party movement's watchdog of the new Congress. FreedomWorks held an orientation session of its own last week for about two dozen incoming lawmakers. Organizers distributed policy notebooks and spoke of how to stay true to the conservative principles that dominated the 2010 election cycle.

And on Tuesday, the group will debut an Internet-based social-networking tool called FreedomConnect that will make it easier for local activists to keep the pressure on lawmakers as the new Congress convenes. Developed by California-based Terra Eclipse, a company that has also done work for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), FreedomConnect shares many characteristics with President Obama's 2008 campaign page, MyBarackObama.com, a hugely successful effort that connected local activists.

FreedomConnect will provide a forum for activists to list the times and locations of town hall meetings and tea party gatherings. It will also provide tools to help tea partiers start letter-writing campaigns before important congressional votes - and to send a stern note to lawmakers who vote against them.

"This taps into all the local energy," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks. "We provide the platform, but it's no longer dependent on us making those calls. That's where you had the huge impact in the last election cycle. You got Facebook and people finding each other without any middleman. This is the next step."

The system will rise or fall on whether tea party activists view FreedomWorks as a credible conduit for the movement's disparate ambitions.

"Some people here are fearful that FreedomWorks is going to come in and try to take over what we're doing," said Gena Bell, the founder of the Eastern Hills Community Tea Party in Cincinnati, who will help FreedomWorks start the new system in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday. "I don't see where FreedomWorks is doing that. They're providing the portal, but the communication is going to be that one-on-one contact between the leaders. I see it as a really great thing."

FreedomWorks officials are careful not to claim leadership of the movement. The group has a huge network of supporters - nearly 700,000 people are on its e-mail list - and so do other groups, including Americans for Prosperity, Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Express and TheTeaParty.net.

But they will use the new system to send activists information about issues and legislation. FreedomConnect will include maps and directions to events and a gadget that allows members to copy and paste events from inside the network onto their personal Web pages, Facebook pages or e-mails. Organizers are especially excited because the new system will allow them to track geographically where the highest concentrations of activity are occurring.

"All of a sudden, if there's 500 comments on something, we'll know something's kicking around," and will be able to harness that energy by staging a protest, a town hall meeting or a letter-writing campaign, said Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks.

It is not incidental that FreedomWorks will start its new network in Ohio, with plans to expand to the other 49 states over time. Ohio just elected five new Republicans to the House and one to the Senate, making it a good place to hold freshmen accountable for their votes; it also has a second U.S. Senate seat - now held by Democrat Sherrod Brown - that will come open in 2012.

Staff writer Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

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