Amid all the fuss over surprise Democratic Senate nominee Alvin Greene in South Carolina, a less-noticed but even more colorful uproar is brewing over certain Tea Party candidates in Florida who may not be quite what they appear -- including one who could draw votes away from the Republican challenger to Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson.
According to Adam Weinstein at Mother Jones, Florida GOP Chairman John Thrasher is claiming that "lefties have pulled an 'Alvin Greene' in the Sunshine State."
Weinstein points to an article in the St. Petersburg Times, titled "The Florida tea party conspiracy," which notes that out of the dozen or more tea party candidates who have qualified for state races, "a number ... are former Democrats, some appear financially strapped to pay the $1,800 filing and others are filing to run in districts far away from their listed address. A number of the seats are also targeted by Democrats for takeover."
"The recent flurry of last minute filings by so-called 'tea party candidates' looks awfully suspicious," Chairman Thrasher charged. "While a few tea-party candidates across the state do have ties to the tea party movement, in the majority of instances, it appears that the Democrats have coordinated a dishonest attempt to hide phony candidates behind the name tea party and to confuse voters who may be supportive of the tea party movement."
The head of the Florida Tea Party, Fred O'Neal -- who was formerly a registered Democrat -- ridicules Thrasher's charges. He told the Times that his only aim was to recruit candidates to challenge Republicans who voted last fall for the SunRail project, a controversial effort to create a commuter rail line in Central Florida.
"Republicans really need to worry about their own business," O'Neal stated. "A number of them will probably go to jail for tax problems."
Despite O'Neal's disclaimers, his motivations may not be as straightforward as he suggests. Last winter, a group of grassroots tea party activists in Florida filed a federal lawsuit alleging that O'Neal had hijacked the "Tea Party" title. O'Neil admitted at the time that he had never actually been to a tea party event but was simply attracted to the name.
The plaintiffs in that case were advised by Michael Caputo, a Miami-based political consultant with a long history of involvement in political dirty tricks and right-wing causes, going back to the 1980's, when he served as the communications director for the Council for Inter-American Security, notorious for its involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.
The latest move in the Florida Tea Party controversy came this Thursday, when Republican Bruce O'Donoghue, who is challenging liberal Democrat Alan Grayson in next fall's congressional race, called a press conference in response to what he described as a "threatening" letter from O'Neal.
In that letter, O'Neal told O'Donoghue, "People who know me know that one of my 'rules of life' is to try not to get drawn into fist fights with midgets. But, in your case, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m going to make an exception."
"I know that the $350,000 youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re so proud of raising probably came with a price," the letter continues. "In my experience, most Republican politicians have to sell their souls to the devil to raise the kind of money they raise. In my experience, big business and special interests have traditionally bought and sold Republican politicians like commodities. As a consequence, Republican politicians, in my experience, tend to vote the way their 'masters' tell them to vote, rather than in the best interest of the people."
O'Donoghue also charged at the press conference that the Florida Tea Party has a "cozy" relationship with Rep. Grayson, based on allegations first raised earlier this week by the Orlando Sentinel. According to the Sentinel, Florida Tea Party co-founder Doug Guetzloe is tied to Grayson by the fact he "had at one point been appointed by Grayson to serve on an advisory panel and that GuetzloeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s son had once interned for Grayson."
Guetzloe has denied the allegations, and Grayson also mocked them through a spokeswoman, saying, "The people who think that probably think Al Gore invented the Internet. All right, you got me. I invented the Tea Party. Sarah Palin is a puppet, and she does whatever I tell her to do."
At this point, it seems safe to conclude that whatever the truth of the various charges and counter-charges turns out to be, with such a colorful cast of characters we have not heard the last of the story.