Has the Tea Party Lost its Grassroots Cred?

People attend a tea party protest in Washington, Thursday, April 15, 2010.
Last week, Hotsheet drew a distinctionbetween the Tea Party Express - the big-spending, headline-generating group that is run by a longtime Republican political operative - and the Tea Party Patriots, the decentralized umbrella group that prides itself on its hivelike, "organized but not organized" structure.

But that assessment has to be reconsidered in light of the Tea Party Patriots' announcement that they have accepted a $1 million donation "for the purpose of growing and strengthen regional and local tea party patriot affiliates across the country." The group would not identify who donated the money.

The Tea Party Patriots, a coalition of over 2,500 local tea party groups, needed the infusion of cash: As Politico notes, it raised less than $1 million in the 14 months between its incorporation and this August.

On CBSNews.com's "Washington Unplugged" Tuesday, Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots stressed that the donation is "not going to Tea Party Patriots, it's going to local groups."

They said the money would be distributed by the group to local chapters, which would apply for funding via grants. "We're not telling people what to use it for," Meckler said, arguing that the umbrella group is putting its trust in the local groups.

But Meckler and Martin's insistence that their organization is a "grassroots, bottom-up organization" is somewhat undercut by their decision to accept the massive, anonymous donation. For starters, since local groups will have to apply for the grants, the Tea Party Patriots will apparently retain at least some form of centralized authority over how the money is spent. And it strains credibility to call your organization grassroots when much of the money behind it comes from one wealthy individual or corporation.

That isn't to say that there isn't legitimate grassroots energy behind the Tea Party Patriots, which will continue not to endorse or contribute directly to candidates. But today's announcement does seem like one more step in the direction of the institutionalization of a movement that prides itself on standing against institutional structures. The Tea Party Patriots may be retaining their hivelike structure, but they are suddenly very much indebted to one powerful queen bee.

Brian Montopoli is a political reporter for CBSNews.com. You can read more of his posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.
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