Tea Party Fakers? Dems Blamed For Co-Opting ‘Tea Party’ Label To Split Conservative Vote

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In many ways, 2010 will be the Year of the Tea Party. The angry conservative movement has bumped off a number of moderate and establishment Republicans in the primary season, packed huge rallies across the country and provided most of the best drama of the political year. But the success and prominence of the tea party movement has led to another trend: across the country, Democrats have been accused of helping get phony “Tea Party” candidates on the ballot in competitive races, in an attempt to split the vote between the Republican and fake “Tea Party” nominee so the Dem can cruise to victory.

It all made a lot of sense at the start. Back at the beginning of 2010, the tea party movement was showing real signs of splitting off into a separate political party. This was before the tea partiers set their sights on remaking the GOP with Senate nominees like Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and Christine O’Donnell, and, in turn, the GOP embraced the movement with both arms. A few clever Democratic activists, it appears, set about to take advantage of the schism between the GOP and tea party.

Evidence of the alleged plan has popped up in Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania this year. Time will tell how successful it’s been, but so far it’s had very little effect.[TPM SLIDESHOW: Tea Partiers Storm DC For Second (And Smaller) 9/12 Rally]

Rarely is doing this kind of thing illegal, or especially unique. Partisans on both sides have attempted to spoil things for their opponents by splitting the vote for probably as long as there have been elections. But with the vocal and frustrated tea partiers rearing up all over the country, some Democrats seemed to think they found a unique opportunity to make life a lot tougher for Republicans. Here’s a snapshot (it is likely by no means an exhaustive list):

Florida

Perhaps the murkiest of the “Tea Party” tales, the legend of the Florida tea party fakers begins with progressive hero Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson. As Christina reported back in June, movement tea partiers — those would be the tri-corn hat types — were upset at 20 Tea Party candidates fielded across the state, including in Grayson’s district, whom the movement claimed were impostors aimed at splitting the Republican vote in tough races. Their evidence? As Christina reported it, “at least 3 of them were once registered to vote as members of the Democratic Party.” That’s not uncommon for tea partiers (many of whom are ticked off independents who voted for President Obama), but it’s enough to raise suspicion. Then there’s the Grayson connection, which consists of the nearly $20,000 he paid to a corporation run by one of the Tea Party candidates.

Democrats and Grayson claim they have nothing to do with the Florida Tea Party and seemingly no one has been able to prove otherwise. But the Grayson payment is has raised plenty of suspicions, as have many of the candidates’ apparent lack of ties to the movement tea party.

Michigan

This one is much more cut-and-dry than the confounding Florida Tea Party story. The Michigan Tea Party was, on paper, founded by a frustrated former UAW worker named Mark Steffek. It soon became clear that despite Steffek’s protestations, some Democrats were involved in getting the party off the ground. Oakland County Democratic Party official Jason Bauer was forced to resign after it came out that he helped recruit the Michigan Tea Party’s 23 candidates (most of whom were fielded in races where Democrats were facing tough GOP challenges.) Democratic party officials claimed no knowledge of the Michigan Tea Party’s organizing, or Bauer’s part in it.

Earlier this month, the whole thing finally fell apart when the state Supreme Court ruled that none of the Michigan Tea Party’s candidates will appear on the ballot this November.

New Jersey

The Garden State’s apparent attempt at a Tea Party flim flam comes in the form of 3rd Congressional District candidate Peter DeStefano. Though he was described by PolitickerNJ back in July as “ultra-conservative,” “believes in the Bible” and “pro-life,” DeStefano’s Tea Party identification has raised the alarm with movement tea partiers, who said it looked to them like he was a plant by incumbent Rep. John Adler’s (D) campaign.

DeStefano and Adler deny this, though there’s some evidence to back up the movement’s claims. As the Courier-Post reported shortly after DeStefano announced his candidacy, the Tea Partier’s name popped up on an internal Adler campaign poll well before anyone else seemed to know he was interested in running. Local tea party groups said they had no idea who he was, and after they met him they nearly immediately labeled him a plant. By the end of July, the state’s largest paper, the Star-Ledger published an editorial calling on Adler to come clean. DeStefano disappeared from the campaign trail, only to return last week for the final push to November.

Pennsylvania

This state is home to two of the most obvious cases of an apparent Democratic-leaning Tea Party sham candidate. First, the easiest one — Tea Party gubernatorial candidate John Krupa dropped out of the race in August after it came to light that many of Democratic nominee Dan Onorato’s supporters helped get Krupa on the ballot. That led to a challenge of his petitions by the state branch of the Tea Party Patriots — the largest grassroots arm of the movement — and the end to Krupa’s candidacy.

Next up is Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, where there’s a slugfest going on to replace the Democratic nominee for Senate, Joe Sestak, in the House. Democrat Bryan Lentz has been at least tacitly connected to Tea Party candidate Jim Schneller. The Philadelphia Daily News reported in August that a woman Lentz once called “the hardest worker on my campaign” was among those helping Schneller get on the ballot. He made it on, and Republican nominee Pat Meehan challenged the signatures while movement tea partiers cried foul.

Earlier this month, a court dismissed the challenge, meaning that the man tea partiers say is an impostor could have a chance to spoil it for the GOP after all.

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