Activists supporting Newt Gingrich in South Carolina are inflamed by allegations surfacing within Michele Bachmann's camp that there's a correlation between the hiring of Tea Party supporters and Tea Party endorsements.
Bachmann's South Carolina spokesperson Wesley Donohue told the Columbia Free-Times in November, "Bachmann is trying to grow an organic base of supporters, and Newt Gingrich is trying to buy off Tea Party groups. ... Newt Gingrich knows the only way he can get the Tea Party vote is to buy it."
"There's a lot of Tea Party leaders in South Carolina that were getting offered positions with the Gingrich campaign," Alice Stewart, Bachmann's national spokesperson explained when asked for further clarification. "They were getting paid good amounts of money, and then shortly thereafter, Gingrich would get the Tea Party endorsement. What Wes was referring to is nothing unethical, illegal, improper. He was just referring to the fact that he found it interesting that he would pay a Tea Party person to be on his team and then get the Tea Party endorsement. So it just raised questions about how genuine the Tea Party endorsements truly are given that they come right after a member is a paid part of the team."
The Myrtle Beach Tea Party voted to endorse Newt Gingrich Dec. 12. Gerri McDaniel, the Myrtle Beach Tea Party leader who joined the Gingrich staff as a regional organizer early November told Fox News, "We have worked so hard to do the right thing, to take responsibility for the shape of our country. What Wesley Donohue is doing is discrediting the Tea Party movement for his candidate...it does nothing but add fuel to the fire to the Democratic Party, which would re-elect Barack Obama. My decision [to support Gingrich] was solely because he is the smartest man in the race."
Over 75 percent of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party voted to endorse Gingrich; McDaniel says each member spent three weeks studying each of the candidates, many whom they had met, and had decided that they would only endorse a candidate of which there was majority support. McDaniel, who has met all the candidates except Ron Paul (and only because she couldn't make the logistics of seeing him work) and is the only Myrtle Beach member paid by the Gingrich campaign, said the accusations lodged by Bachmann's South Carolina operation is damaging to the Tea Party movement as a whole.
"Grassroots all over are very upset, even the ones not targeted [by Wesley]. Not all of them endorse candidates. I have received apology from Wesley but it was a private message, saying, 'Don't take this seriously, I'm not targeting you.' I don't really want to say anything about Wesley but he's taken it to a personal level targeting grassroots when it's not the truth. Some of things he said -- that we're being paid $45,000 -- is not true. I can handle myself, but do not target grassroots working extremely hard doing the right thing."
She added, "To discredit his candidate like he has -- there are grassroots organizations looking at Michele Bachmann in a different light now and it's not fair to her. What he's done has caused his candidate damage, and that's not a good thing." She contrasted what Donohue was doing against the clear instructions by her candidate to stay positive.
Laurens County Tea Party is another group that has endorsed the former House Speaker. None of the members are paid staffers for Gingrich.
President and founder Dianne Belsom said, "Wesley has indicated on our Facebook page he's not accusing my group of that. Nevertheless when something comes out saying money is changing hands and certain people being paid off, it puts everyone under a cloud. The charges are completely ridiculous. We've been on board with the Tea Party since 2009. The number of hours all of us have personally spent fighting for our country -- It's an absurd idea that some of us can be bought off. We're working for our country. It's very upsetting to have allegations like this made. To make the endorsement, we had a vetting committee. We met together. We took an honest look. All of us went in with a different candidate than who we eventually endorsed. Through research and analysis of the election we came to this as best person for the job."
"We would not be a frontrunner campaign if it wasn't for our Tea Party support. I don't know about other campaigns, but part of our success is not challenging their integrity or motivations," said Gingrich spokesperson R.C. Hammond. He added, "I think the Bachmann campaign is trying to start a fire by rubbing two ice cubes together."
The Minnesota Congresswoman was asked about Donohue's allegations Wednesday night on CNN and said, "Well, Wesley would have to speak to that himself with what evidence he has, but this is something that we've been hearing all across the country, that money is changing hands, and that's not how I do business. In fact I've told people, I've told evangelicals, I've told Tea Partiers, I don't pay people to come out and be my supporters, that's not what I do. When we have Tea Party groups and all of the rest, I don't do that because I'm just a real person."
Bachmann is the first presidential candidate to accept an invitation to address the South Carolina Tea Party convention, the first of its kind, to be held on January 16, right before the first-in-the-South primary. Senator Jim DeMint has agreed to deliver opening remarks and Governor Nikki Haley will also deliver a key address.
Spearheading the convention is Joe Dugan, who serves as state coordinator for the South Carolina Patriots, a loose organization of Tea Party groups throughout the state. He is also a member of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party. When he learned of the accusations, he said he found them laughable.
Dugan said, "Last I spoke to McDaniel she hadn't even gotten her first check for expenses and she's driving all over the state but she's on his campaign staff. And Allen Olsen, who resigned from the Columbia Tea Party, was never paid anything by the Gingrich campaign. I have never been paid anything by the Gingrich campaign. The Gingrich campaign didn't have any money to pay anybody."
"I think it's absolutely ridiculous. I really like Michele Bachmann and it's so unfortunate her campaign has deteriorated to the point." Dugan and McDaniel both escorted Congresswoman Bachmann when she visited Myrtle Beach, which happened long before the group decided to make an endorsement.
He added, "I know different groups are backing certain candidates and that's fine with me. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and advocate for their candidates. But I would hope -- the Tea Party movement until now has shown such tremendous character. I think back to that rally not he Washington Mall where there were a million plus people, and the picture of the mall after the crowd broke up, there was not a paper cup on the grass. That shows respect. That's what I hope the Tea Party is about -- getting back to having character and going back to the Founding Fathers and you have respect for other human beings. This is the antithesis of what the Tea Party is all about."