DALLAS – A month after President Barack Obama took office in January, Drew Ryun moved to Texas and began organizing the state office of American Majority.
Ryun is among many political organizers across the nation who watched the Tea Party phenomenon and is now asking the question: “Can you harness conservative anger about the direction the country is headed and convert those sign-waving protests into votes for 2010 and 2012?
“I think the chances are about 50-50,” Ryun said. “Maybe I’m selling myself short, though.”
The answer could be important in races up and down the ballot. While Republicans still dominate Texas politics, Democrats have made steady gains, particularly in Dallas County. If conservatives can turn out a surge of voters, Republicans stand a chance at regaining ground.
Ryun brought his organizing campaign to Dallas last week for an American Majority activist training workshop. Forty-five people – half men and half women – paid $25 each for the three-hour session in the banquet room of a Quality Inn.
“How many of you have attended Tea Party rallies?” Ryun, clad in khaki slacks and white dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves, asked the group. About half of the attendees raised their hands. One woman identified herself as a “neighborhood coordinator” for the Dallas Tea Party.
“Well, it’s very clear we are in an ideological revolution,” Ryun told the group. “We need to turn that anger, which has been somewhat directionless, and focus it.”
Ryun is uncomfortable with talk that American Majority might favor the Republican Party. As a nonprofit organization, American Majority must remain nonpartisan to maintain its tax-exempt status under IRS regulations. So, instead, he talks about promoting “the conservative movement.”
Still, Democratic Party operatives say Ryun and American Majority are fronting for the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Gov. Rick Perry is the most visible symbol of that group in Texas.
“What the Republicans are trying to do is put some political organization behind the mean wing of their party,” said Matt Angle, director of Texas Democratic Trust, a political action committee. “They ought to put a jersey on that says ‘R’ on it.”
Nelson Baird looked anything but mean and angry. A large, gregarious man dressed in his American flag golf shirt, he was one of the 45 who attended the American Majority workshop.
Baird, 56, a project manager for a technical services firm, serves as chairman of the Ellis County Republican Party. New people joining the conservative movement, he said, have a vague sense that the United States they know and love is changing for the worse.
It might be immigration issues, family values issues, concern about gun rights or a feeling of powerlessness in the face of rising taxes, Baird said. Whatever, conservatives are getting fired up, he said. But the danger, he added, is that they will fall prey to a third-party movement that hurts Republican candidates and, thus, allows more Democrats to be elected.
“My advice to them (political conservatives) is to go out and make sure the Republican Party nominates the guy you want,” he said.
Ryun insists he is not working for Republicans _ explicitly or implicitly. In fact, he believes his brand of conservatism often gets lost in the pragmatism and compromise of everyday Republican Party politics.
“Part of the fight we are having right now is more with the Republican side than with the Democrat side,” he said.
American Majority is based in Purcellville, Va., about 40 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. Ned Ryun, Drew Ryun’s twin brother, is national director of the organization.
Jim Ryun, their father, was a famous Olympic runner in the 1960s who went on to become a conservative Republican congressman from Kansas. The family has a long history with the Republican Party. Drew Ryun, now a 36-year-old father of two, worked for the Republican National Committee as deputy director of grassroots in 2004. Ned Ryun was a writer for George W. Bush.
American Majority is formally organized in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Minnesota, Arkansas and Kansas with a staff of about 20 people.
“With the Ryuns, winning is wired into our DNA by nature,” said Drew Ryun, who also ran competitively in college. “Our goal is to be in all 50 states.”
Ryun estimates that “above 75 percent” of American Majority’s funding comes from the Sam Adams Alliance, a conservative think tank in Chicago. In return for their tax-exempt status, American Majority and the Sam Adams Alliance are required to make their income tax returns available to the public.
American Majority is so new that its first tax return is not available online. In its 2007 tax return, the last one available online, the Sam Adams Alliance declined to reveal names of its donors, saying that “such disclosure may chill the donors’ First Amendment right to associate in private with the organization.”
Angle, the Democratic Party activist, said he believes the Sam Adams Alliance and its financial support of American Majority is a way for corporations to stay in the shadows and pour money into conservative causes that benefit them.
“They don’t have any real support at the grassroots level,” he said.
It’s impossible to generalize about what motivated 45 people to attend American Majority’s political workshop in Dallas. Ryun said they are not “normal” because most people are politically apathetic and don’t even vote.
But there were some hints as to their mindsets.
They often decry newspapers and distrust “the mainstream media.”
And some fear that Obama is spending the nation into bankruptcy and expanding the power of the federal government. Some said they never before had attended a political workshop.
One middle-age and graying participant wore a name tag that said “John Galt.”
John Galt is a fictional character in novelist Ayn Rand’s 1957 capitalist manifesto “Atlas Shrugged.” An entry in Wikipedia says John Galt serves as “an idealistic counterpoint … to a society based on oppressive bureaucratic functionaries and a culture that embraces the stifling mediocrity and egalitarianism of socialistic idealism.”
Drew Ryun puts it more simply.
“These are people,” he said, “who have awakened to the fact that something is wrong.”