By the time CNBC’s election-night anchors welcomed Dick Armey on the air, the networks had already called it. CNBC rolled footage of Barack Obama supporters waving American flags and cheering, above the breaking-news banner: PRES. OBAMA WINS RE-ELECTION. The only thing left was for Mitt Romney to concede.
But Armey, the former House majority leader, saw no reason to surrender. “I don’t blame the Romney folks for refusing any concession speech on the basis of this premature call,” Armey told viewers. “You got Florida running, seems to me, headlong into a recount, and Ohio I don’t think is settled by any means.”
Driving to his home outside Dallas after the TV appearance, Armey heard Karl Rove on the radio insisting that Ohio was still up for grabs. Armey planted himself on the couch and flipped anxiously between Fox News and C-SPAN, nourishing a flicker of hope right up until 12:55 am, when Romney finally capitulated.
After three decades in politics, Armey had seen Republicans lose plenty of elections. But this one really hurt. He knew it would be his last election as the face of the Tea Party, and it wasn’t supposed to end this way.
One month earlier, Armey had agreed to resign as chairman of FreedomWorks, an influential conservative organization, and slipped out of Washington for good. Even an $8-million payout couldn’t assuage his bitterness. The fall of 2012 should have been an auspicious time at FreedomWorks headquarters.
Throughout the mid-aughts, the organization had tried—and repeatedly failed—to ignite a modern-day Tea Party movement. So when populist anger over out-of-control federal spending gripped the nation in 2009, no group in Washington was better positioned to capitalize on it. FreedomWorks organized Tea Party protests, supported hardened conservative candidates, and helped the GOP take back the House in the 2010 midterms. In the run-up to the November 2012 elections, FreedomWorks rallied 2.1 million activists and spent nearly $20 million in an effort to drag Washington to the right.
Almost overnight, the organization had transformed itself from a B-list nonprofit to the Tea Party’s unofficial headquarters in Washington. The ascent was engineered by a pair of unlikely allies. With his ten-gallon hat and Texas swagger, Armey, 72, was FreedomWorks’ charismatic frontman. Forty-nine-year-old Matt Kibbe, an ex-congressional aide with muttonchops and Grateful Dead posters, was its behind-the-scenes strategist.
Through their long crusade, the two had become as close as family, and Kibbe saw Armey as a father figure. But at the very moment that their small-government revolution was finally happening, Armey and Kibbe declared war on each other, dividing the FreedomWorks staff into opposing factions just weeks before the most important election of their lives. Employees scrambled to keep the infighting out of the press, fearing that the embarrassment would hurt Republicans at the ballot box, and they struggled to make sense of the rift.
What could have caused the nasty, personal feud between these two former allies that now threatened to destroy their life’s work?
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It was 1983, and Dick Armey needed a new job. He had once been happy at North Texas State University, whose faculty he had joined in 1972. He began economics classes by reciting: “Armey’s Axiom Number One: The market’s rational; the government’s dumb.” He spun dry academic concepts into engaging lessons—using, for example, Al Capone’s crime syndicate to explain market-sharing cartels. Students voted Armey their favorite professor.
By the early 1980s, though, North Texas State’s campus in Denton was growing increasingly liberal and politically correct, and Armey felt out of place. “I had to get out of there,” he says.
Armey spent evenings watching live coverage of roll-call votes and markup hearings on C-SPAN. “Hell, obviously anybody can do that job,” he thought. He declared his candidacy for the House in 1983 and was elected the following year.
In his Stetson hat and cowboy boots, Armey cut an improbable figure in Congress. He sneaked out to the Potomac for early-morning fishing, and to save money he slept in the House gym. When the House speaker kicked him out, he crashed in his office.
Armey fought hard to cut government spending, and when he won a few high-profile battles, GOP leaders took note. They invited him to help write the so-called Contract With America, a set of promises—to audit Congress for waste, to downsize committee staffs—that became the Republican platform for the 1994 midterms. When voters handed control of the House to Republicans for the first time in 40 years, Armey was elected majority leader.
Despite his rise, Armey lacked political instincts, forgetting people’s names and arriving late to votes because he was chatting with his staff. “He was a Mr. Magoo type of character,” says a former GOP leadership aide. “Everyone knew that he didn’t know what was going on.”
Armey also talked himself into controversy. He referred to Hillary Clinton as “Marxist” and to Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank—an openly gay congressman—as “Barney Fag.” (Armey said he accidentally mispronounced Frank’s name.)
Heading into a press conference after the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Armey was advised by a press aide not to comment on the affair. But when a reporter asked, he couldn’t help himself. “If I had been [in the President’s place], I would be looking up from a pool of blood and hearing [my wife] say, ‘How do I reload this thing?’ ”
Armey retired from Congress in 2003 but hoped to remain active in the small-government movement. “It isn’t impossible that you could be more effective out of Congress than you are in Congress,” his wife, Susan, said.
Yes, Armey agreed. But only if he joined the right organization.