When the Tea Party Patriots held their first nationwide rally Feb. 27, organizers hoped a few dozen people might show in each of the 10 cities hosting an event, national coordinator Amy Kremer said. Instead, she said, 30,000 people turned out.
Today, there are more than 400 local chapters listed on the group's website and organizers estimate there may be 100 more. Four national coordinators work with local volunteers who schedule rallies, call their neighbors to invite them to events and let them know when a local representative is holding a town hall. The group also has a massive database of e-mail addresses it uses to stay in touch with members, Kremer said.
From the beginning, Kremer said, the group relied on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, to get their message out. The group uses Facebook, for instance, to link to a list of congressional town hall meetings. Kremer said the effort has been successful because it tapped into deep-seated mistrust in the government that people were feeling.
"It was already bubbling up," she said. "And when people start going out to the streets, they start realizing they're not alone."
The Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks, among others, are organizing a march on Capitol Hill next month. FreedomWorks posted an item on its website this week seeking sponsors for the event and the Tea Party site includes details on how to catch a bus to the rally.
In addition to their websites, the groups have organized their own health care town hall meetings, rallies and e-mail campaigns. Americans for Prosperity, an anti-tax group that says it spent more than $1.8 million last month on television ads opposing the health care legislation, has put together a bus tour with 170 stops in 13 states during the recess, for instance.
FreedomWorks and a separate affiliated foundation received more than $10 million in revenue in 2006, according to tax records. At least some of that money came from foundations controlled by conservative western Pennsylvania newspaper publisher Richard Scaife, tax records show. Americans for Prosperity and its foundation collected $10 million in 2007. The tax records are the most recent available, so there is no way of documenting who is financing the groups now or how much they have received.
Leaders of the groups, however, said it doesn't take an expensive event to rally supporters.
To build a crowd for an August town hall meeting held by Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., for instance, Brendan Steinhauser, a "social networking coordinator" for FreedomWorks, took a news item from a local newspaper and posted it on social networking sites. The visitors of those sites, he said, did the rest of the work.
The unlikely model for the 27-year-old organizer's effort: Obama's presidential campaign. "These guys are very smart when it comes to organizing," he said.
Tony Passaro of Bel Air, Md., says he got involved with the Tea Party Patriots when he was surfing around for information on how to protest a property tax assessment hike. "I Googled 'tax appeal' or something like that," Passaro said.
Since then, the 69-year-old retiree has organized an anti-tax rally in his hometown, picketed town hall meetings of Rep. Frank Kratovil and Sen. Ben Cardin, both Maryland Democrats, and compiled a 1,700-name e-mail list. Passaro said he knows he's been successful when one of his e-mails comes back to him several days later from someone he doesn't know.