Will Sarah Palin's Tea Party dinner be a bust?
Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips likely assumed that scoring a dinner speech by the former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate would guarantee a huge turnout for his National Tea Party Convention, scheduled to start Feb. 4 at Nashville's Gaylord Opryland Hotel. But according to Tea Party insiders, the tickets for the Palin banquet aren't selling—and some conservative activists who have already paid to attend are now demanding refunds. With the controversial event shaping up to be a potential flop, some Tea Partiers are urging Palin to cancel her speech to avoid a humiliating public relations disaster.
The problems began after news broke that Phillips intended to profit from the convention—which costs $549 a person for access to both the conference and Palin’s banquet, or $349 for a ticket to the dinner alone. With one prominent conservative blogger charging that the event seemed "scammy," several key sponsors yanked their support, including the National Precinct Alliance, the American Liberty Alliance, American Majority, and the Federation for American Immigration Reform. As the rash of bad press continued, this week Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), announced that she’s considering pulling out as a convention speaker. And some Tea Party activists think Palin should join her. According to internal convention planning documents obtained by Mother Jones, Palin will be paid $115,000 to address the attendees—as they dine on steak or lobster. To some Tea Partiers, this lavish affair sounds suspiciously like an exclusive GOP fundraiser and a betrayal of their grassroots movement. (In mid-January, Palin told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly that she will not profit from her appearance at the convention, suggesting she would donate her speaking fee to Republican candidates. But she has not provided any details on that, and a Palin spokesperson did not respond to requests for clarification.)
Phillips has bragged publicly that the tickets covering both the convention and the speech have sold out. Yet Tea Party insiders say that's not the whole story. Anthony Shreeve is an activist in Dandridge, Tenn. who quit the convention organizing committee over the expensive ticket prices. He says he has it on good authority that most of the approximately 500 speech-only tickets have not been sold. Shreeve adds that Phillips "isn't going to sell any more," and says other would-be attendees have been demanding—and receiving—refunds. Late on Tuesday afternoon, I tested his claim by attempting to buy 10 tickets to the dinner. If I’d been prepared to shell out $3,587.10, that would apparently have been no problem. "I really hope that Sarah Palin doesn’t come to this event because it's going to be really embarrassing for her to walk into a half-empty room," says Shreeve.