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The Tea Party Movement: Who's In Charge?

Here is the organizational landscape of the April 15 tea party movement, in a nutshell: three national-level conservative groups, all with slightly different agendas, are guiding it. All are quick to tell you that the movement is a bottom-up affair and that its grassroots cred is real.

They are: FreedomWorks, the conservative action group led by Dick Armey; dontGO, a tech savvy free-market action group that sprung out of last August's oil-drilling debate in the House of Representatives; and Americans for Prosperity, an issue advocacy/activist group based on free market principles. Conservative bloggers, talk show hosts, and other media figures have attached themselves to the movement in peripheral capacities. Armey will appear at a major rally in Atlanta, FreedomWorks said.

All three groups vehemently deny that the movement is a product of AstroTurfing--fake grassroots activism organized from the top down--as some on the left have claimed. They will tell you that citizens-turned-activists, upset with President Obama's economic agenda and the financial bailout, have been calling them, asking for help and how they can organize protests on Wednesday. The movement, they say, is entirely organic: they are mostly providing help and resources to this new class of outraged conservative free-market populists, some of whom are their own members and some of whom are outsiders to politics with whom they've never communicated before--not even on an e-mail list.
FreedomWorks and dontGO seem to have taken ownership of the bulk of this coordination. The homepage of FreedomWorks' website now offers visitors a Google map of protests taking place across the country. They say they know of 600 Tax Day protests for which they are providing resources. The group has used its e-mail list to augment the work of dontGO, which created the website www.taxdayteaparty.com in February. dontGO, which was formed as an online rapid response team during the House of Representatives oil drilling debate last year, says it is "tracking" 700 events under its aegis. Americans for Prosperity says it has 24 state chapters that are organizing events. Overlap between all those numbers is quite likely: FreedomWorks told me a lot of its activity has been clueing its members to other protests in the area, so protesters can cooperate and conglomerate their events.

The movement is not tied to the Republican Party, group spokesmen said, despite a report that at least 10 House Republicans will be speaking at events across the country. Eric Odom, founder of dontGO, has infamously turned down a request from Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele to speak at the group's Chicago event.

Spokesmen for all three groups said they are not aware of any contact (other than the Steele incident) between their groups and federal-level Republican politicians, at the national level at least; Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), however, will speak at an Americans for Prosperity-organized event in Wisconsin, a spokesman for that group said. His appearance was organized by the group's Wisconsin chapter, Policy Director Phil Kerpen told me.
 
The three groups each want something different out of the protests.

FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon sees them as an opportunity for the right to catch up to the left in terms of grassroots activity, incorporating the activist-network model used most effectively by MoveOn.org.

"Activists in general have learned a lot from the last election," Brandon told me. "You'd see 50 MoveOn.org people standing outside a gas station. We feel just as strong about our issues."

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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