But for one important detail, Stephen Fincher could be a perfect tea-party candidate: a gospel-singing cotton farmer from Frog Jump, a hamlet in western Tennessee, seeking to right the listing ship of Washington, D.C., with a commitment to lower taxes and smaller government.
FROG JUMP, Tenn. — But for one important detail, Stephen Fincher could be a perfect tea-party candidate: a gospel-singing cotton farmer from Frog Jump, a hamlet in western Tennessee, seeking to right the listing ship of Washington, D.C., with a commitment to lower taxes and smaller government.
The detail? Fincher accepts roughly $200,000 in farm subsidies each year.
Some tea-party activists say Fincher, a Republican candidate in Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District, isn’t “pure” enough to deserve the backing of a movement built on the idea that government must spend less. But others have pledged their support, highlighting a division over what constitutes orthodoxy in the amorphous cause — and who decides.
As congressional primary campaigns gear up, tea-party activists face some of their first big choices since coalescing last year in opposition to President Obama, the health-care overhaul and growing federal spending: picking candidates. In many cases, they will have to decide between purity and pragmatism, between ideals and organization.
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And their choices will provide clues to the long-term fate of the movement.
“This effort is to try to get the Republican Party to try to give us more conservative candidates,” said David Nance, a Fincher supporter and founder of the Gibson County Patriots, in Jackson, Tenn. “A few days ago, I was watching two candidates on one of the news channels, and basically they were kind of sparring over which one was the more conservative. Now that tells me that something’s working.”
The Tipton County Tea Party convened on a recent evening in Munford, Tenn., to raise money for billboards, organize a tax-day protest and encourage attendance at a state convention in late May.
About 40 people attended. They cheered when the organizer, Vince DiCello, told a long-winded joke about a new metal called Pelosium, after Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (“its mass keeps getting heavier”). And they murmured in disapproval when he passed around a photograph of Obama with his shoes off — evidence, DiCello said, that the president prays with Muslims but not Christians (“That’s because he is a Muslim,” an audience member called out).
But when DiCello asked for donations to place conservative messages on highway billboards statewide, he was met with skepticism.
“We’re collecting money individually as tea-party groups,” DiCello said. Sensing suspicion, he added: “These people are not going to take our money and steal it.”
The exchange illustrates the movement’s mistrust of centralized power. But if a dozen groups can’t collect money for billboards, how can they organize a successful campaign or grow into a permanent political force?
These activists mistrust Fincher because he is the anointed candidate of national Republicans and because of those farm subsidies. Jim Tomasik, a leader of the Mid-South Tea Party in Cordova, Tenn., is heading perhaps the most organized effort to portray Fincher as a welfare farmer.
“If Republicans are going to complain about subsidizing General Motors, that’s a drop in the bucket to farm subsidies,” Tomasik said. “But they’re backing candidates who are taking large amounts of money from the federal government. That’s hypocritical.”
Donn Janes, an independent and self-described tea-party candidate for the 8th District seat, also is among Fincher’s critics. But the challenge of competing against a well-funded candidate — Fincher has raised nearly $1 million — was highlighted in Janes’ plea for support at the Tipton County Tea Party meeting, where he invited activists to a bowling-alley fundraiser. “If you can attend, that would be great,” Janes said. “I’m not one of those guys who has a ton of special-interest money.”
Fincher’s supporters are drawn to his social conservatism, including his anti-abortion stand, and his commitment to opposing new taxes (he signed the no-tax pledge of the group Americans for Tax Reform).
“He is for the Constitution,” said Lucy Overstreet, a Jackson Madison County TEA Party organizer who is supporting Fincher. “He is for getting the budget balanced. He does not want this health care. He is right in line with the views we are holding true to.”
Fincher, 37, a tall, blue-eyed high-school graduate, never had been involved in politics until July, when a friend asked him to run against 11-term Democratic incumbent John Tanner. Fincher never had been to Washington, D.C., until he met with Republican leaders last year, and he didn’t own a BlackBerry — although he admits he loves the one he has now.
National Republicans, meanwhile, were downright giddy about Fincher’s strengths: poise and charm honed over years on the gospel circuit (he sings with a family foursome); a rich Tennessee drawl speckled with country aphorisms (he calls his fundraiser, James Wallace, Mr. Jimmy); and a surname with more than two centuries of local prominence. The icing on the cake was Fincher’s ability to raise money.
“It was like, ‘Oh my God, I love this,’ ” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., who helped recruit Fincher into the race.
Unlike the Republican Party, which spends a lot of time, money and effort to find good candidates, local tea-party groups are too new or unorganized to do much recruiting. Instead, they have to choose among inexperienced volunteers or the more polished candidates selected by the national parties.
GOP strategists told Fincher that he would need to raise $1 million to challenge Tanner. He quickly took in more than $300,000, an accomplishment that many observers agree was at least one factor in Tanner’s decision in December to retire. Fincher now has nearly $1 million in the bank, an astonishing sum for any political newcomer.
The one possible chink is the farm-subsidy issue, a topic that makes Fincher and his team sensitive. According to data compiled by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, Fincher and his wife, Lynn, received about $2.5 million in subsidies between 1995 and 2006. But Fincher said his farm would have shut down years ago without that money.
He also said the subsidies come with conditions, such as when he was required to spend thousands of dollars building an earthen terrace to control erosion. And without the money, he said, U.S. farmers couldn’t compete with countries that subsidize fuel and fertilizer more generously.
“People are quick to say with their mouth full, ‘Well, the American farmer is on the dole,’ ” Fincher said. “But a loaf of bread is two bucks when it could be 10 bucks. I know what it is with the government in my business. We would be all for not having government in our business, but we need a fair system.”
Tomasik plans to keep beating the drum through November, a potential spoiler in a race in which the Democrat, state Sen. Roy Herron, had amassed a war chest of $655,000 as of Dec. 31. If Janes, the independent, draws even a few percentage points of support in the general election, that could make the difference in a close contest.
Fincher is acutely aware of this possibility, pleading for activists to coalesce behind the strongest candidate — him — or risk a GOP loss in November.
The Democratic agenda is “a power grab that would have made King George blush,” he told a crowd of 100 during his kickoff tour last week. “Folks, I mean to keep my word. And if I don’t, I’ll give you my address and some rope. That’s real accountability.”