Down The Rabbit Hole: Is The ‘Florida Tea Party’ Tied To Democrat Alan Grayson?

The pieces of the Florida Tea Party puzzle are all a bit strange, and none fit together quite right. Republicans and activists say voters are being duped by former Democrats, an anti-tax radio host and college students who took an odd alliance and made it into an official third party — the Florida Tea Party — to put “TEA” on the ballot for the first time this fall. State Democrats were amused by the whole thing until several links between the Florida Tea Party group and Rep. Alan Grayson surfaced, complicating everything.

TPM has tracked down all the players, from a 23-year-old who caught tea fever to a talk radio station owner who canned two Tea Party members, and one thing is clear. When it comes to tea in Florida, everyone seems to be pointing a finger at everyone else.Grayson (D-FL) is one of the top targets for the Republicans this fall, but only entered this tea party fracas recently when he got an official TEA challenger. Peg Dunmire is running on a conservative platform and supported by the official Florida Tea Party, but someone digging into Grayson’s campaign finance reports found links between him and the party backing his challenger. Republicans, already worried that the Florida Tea Party candidates will siphon votes away from the anointed GOPers, have charged that there’s something fishy going on.

Grayson once hired a pollster who is now running in a state House race on the Florida Tea Party ticket. And he ran radio ads on Doug Guetzloe’s radio show on Big 810AM — the same Guetzloe who is a co-founder of the Florida Tea Party and embroiled in a lawsuit over whether the party is legitimate.

Team Grayson says they can explain everything — they used Republican pollster Victoria Torres to see how he’s viewed by the right, and they bought advertising with Guetzloe to try and reach libertarian-leaning Republicans who might like Grayson’s antiwar message. They also say that he bought the same ad time during the 2008 and 2006 elections, “long before the tea party was even conceived,” said spokesman Todd Jurkowski. We’re scouring FEC reports now, and have found at least three payments for Guetzloe’s radio show in 2008 that verifies the Grayson camp’s claim. (Grayson’s camp also points out they kept nothing about the pollster private, since they did press releases about those internal polls when they were completed last winter, and that Torres only recently jumped on the Tea Party ticket.)

So, while Grayson may be in the clear, the story of the Florida Tea Party’s fortunes gets more complicated when talking to Guetzloe, whose show was yanked off the air this week following reports that the Florida Tea Party was sponsoring about 20 state House candidates and riling the Sunshine State’s political scene. And yes, it’s the same radio station that fired Raul Pantoja this week after he announced he was running on — you guessed it — the Florida Tea Party ticket for a state house seat. TPM told Guetzloe it all seemed a bit odd when we called to get to the bottom of things.

“It is not strange at all. Connect the dots for me. You can’t. There’s no dots to be connected,” Guetzloe told me in an interview.

Radio station co-owner Carl Como confirmed that the station is no longer running “The Guetzloe Report” in the lunchtime hour, but said it has nothing to do with politics. He said the issue for the station was the Grayson ads on Guetzloe’s show, since the proper forms about political ad disclosure for the FCC weren’t filed.

It’s a real he-said, he-said. Como says he was “warned” about Guetzloe from previous radio owners and that Guetzloe owed those stations money, so he asked Guetzloe for Big 810’s payments for the airtime up front. Guetzloe claims Como told him that the Florida Tea Party was wrecking the GOP. “He said, ‘I’ve got a real problem with the Tea Party, it may be destroying the Republican Party,'” Guetzloe said.

Como claims he’s got no political affiliation. In an interview with TPM, Como said he gave Guetzloe an opportunity to fill out the forms for weeks. “I thought he was avoiding something because he didn’t want to be implicated in something,” he said.

In their final fight, “He just left in a huff and a puff, saying he was going to have Grayson take away my license,” Como said. Guetzloe said it’s Como’s responsibility to fill out the forms, and that the owner was trying to force him to sign something that he is tied to Grayson.

“He collected commission on the buy for Grayson,” Como said. He elaborated here. A Grayson campaign aide said Guetzloe made no commission. Guetzloe said he pocketed “about” $162.

But more ties keep cropping up. The Orlando Sentinel reported:

Grayson appointed Guetzloe to a small-business advisory council, advertised on his conservative radio show and gave his son an internship in his congressional office.

Does that mean Grayson is behind the Florida Tea Party? Hardly. But he has been drawn into the ongoing schism between the Florida Tea Party and the unofficial tea party groups, each of whom claims to be the sole legitimate heir to the tea party name and the grassroots cachet that goes along with it.

If the Florida Tea Party group gets what they want in the ongoing copyright suit, no other activists could even use the term tea party in their materials. And of course, elections have consequences. Grayson was once the most targeted freshman for incendiary remarks he’s made about the war, Republicans and even health care reform. Republicans need to win seats like his if they want to recapture the House this fall.

Kyle Leighton contributed to this report