Tea Partiers Now Forming Circular Firing Squad

The level of internal tension within the always fractious Tea Party is reaching a boiling point, in the wake of yesterday’s meeting with RNC chair Michael Steele and amid early efforts to build a third party out of the grassroots movement.

A major Tea Party group has announced its opposition to the idea of creating a third party — drawing scorn from at least one activist. And a new anti-Steele website warns of the “‘hijacking’ of the Tea Party Movement by the GOP.” Taken as a whole, the infighting suggests intense and fundamental philosophical differences among Tea Party factions, just as the movement is being hailed as a political force.The Tea Party Patriots — perhaps the best-known and best-organized of the various Tea Party factions — today sent supporters a statement, obtained by TPMmuckraker, disavowing the idea of forming a third party, calling such efforts “unproductive and unwise at this time.” The statement comes on the heels of news reports about burgeoning efforts to create a third party out of the movement — most prominently in Nevada.

But it angered some advocates of the third party route. In an email to TPMmuckraker, Jim Knapp, a Sacramento-based Tea Party activist who favors the idea, called the statement “truly disturbing.”

“These few self proclaimed leaders are helping the GOP hijack the movement, despite Rasmussen polls that indicate the majority support a third party,” wrote Knapp.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Everett Wilkinson, a South Florida Tea Party activist, launched Save Our Movement, a website warning that Steele, the RNC chair, “is trying to take over the ‘Tea Party.'” The site allows users to send an email message to Steele “regarding the ‘hijacking’ of the Tea Party Movement by the GOP.”

Wilkinson was acting in response to Steele’s meeting with a group of around 50 Tea Party leaders. Many Tea Partiers have long warned of efforts by the Republican Party to seize control of the movement — and as we reported, those warnings grew louder this week thanks to the Steele meeting.

In an email to TPMmuckraker, Wilkinson also blasted Karin Hoffman, the activist who helped organize yesterday’s meeting with Steele. Wilkinson accused Hoffman of falsely representing herself as a south Florida Tea Party leader. “She does not represent the sentiment of the Tea Party Movement, South Florida Tea Party, Florida Tea Party, nor Tea Party Patriots,” Wilkinson wrote.

Another Florida Tea Partier, Robin Stublen, recently sent an email to fellow activists announcing a protest aimed at the RNC’s effort to “move in on the Tea Party movement.” Stublen also blasted Hoffman, claiming that her Tea Party group “cannot be traced for ownership,” and suggesting it could be “a front for a fringe of the RNC.”

Not even the Tea Party Patriots – who Knapp accused of conspiring with the GOP — have embraced the Steele-Hoffman meeting. Jenny Beth Martin, a leader and spokesperson for the group, told TPMmuckraker in an email yesterday that her group was not involved in the confab, and that it was “committed to our core values of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets over any particular political party.”

In what may be a small attempt to placate Tea Partiers wary of GOP encroachment, the RNC appears to have taken down the web page teaparty.gop.com, which, as we noted yesterday, had allowed users to send a “virtual teabag” to Democratic leaders. The page, set up in April 2009, had been active as late as yesterday, but now resolves to the RNC homepage.