Politics & Policy

Tea for Three

The Tea Party Express will go into overdrive for a trio of Senate candidates.

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The ides of October approach, and Democrats, in disarray, pray that the tea-party movement is as disorganized as they say it is. While they prattle on about witchy diversions, Sal Russo, a 63-year-old political consultant, is carefully mapping out his closing strategy.

Russo is the Reaganite maestro behind the Tea Party Express, a California-based political-action committee. Since January 2009, his group has raised more than $5.3 million, making it, in the words of the New York Times, the “single biggest independent supporter of tea-party candidates.”

In the final weeks of the midterm campaign, Russo tells National Review Online that his group will focus on funneling resources to three U.S. Senate candidates: Joe Miller in Alaska, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. “Those are the three places where we will be directing most of our attention,” he says via phone from Sacramento, where the Tea Party Express is headquartered. “We’ll spend money in Alaska and have an advertising presence in Delaware. Sharron Angle remains our number-one race; she’s our favorite.”

While electing that trio is at the top of his agenda, Russo says that the Tea Party Express will also look to be a force in other hot races across the country. On October 18 in Reno, the group will launch “Tea Party Express IV,” a 15-day nationwide bus tour. The road trip will include rallies for Carly Fiorina in California, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, and Rand Paul in Kentucky.

Not every popular conservative insurgent could be included. Ken Buck, Colorado’s Republican Senate contender, is a tea-party favorite, but he was not included on the bus tour for logistical reasons. Marco Rubio, Florida’s GOP Senate nominee and one of Russo’s favorite candidates, was also left off the itinerary. “We really like Rubio and would like to be involved, but I don’t think he needs us,” Russo says. He points out that Rubio, who for months was mired in a tight three-way race, has galloped to a 25-point lead, according to Rasmussen’s latest poll.

Similar decisions have also been made with regard to finances. Linda McMahon, the self-funded Republican Senate nominee in Connecticut, will probably not see Tea Party Express dollars flow into Hartford, though the group’s bus will stop in Waterbury in early November. In New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte, the GOP Senate nominee, will benefit from a rally in Concord, but little more.

Russo tells us that he supports Ayotte, who beat his favored candidate in the primary, but will probably not have the time or the bankroll for advertising blitzes except in Alaska, Delaware, and Nevada. He says that his group, which is in high demand, must concentrate on where it can have the greatest impact, not simply on where it can lend a helping hand. “We can’t carry anything or elect anybody by ourselves,” he says. “Our goal is to make a difference.”

Angle, who is attempting to topple Senate majority leader Harry Reid, is facing a troubling challenge from Jon Scott Ashjian, a little-known activist who bills himself as the true tea-party candidate. Russo has been devoting much of his time in recent weeks to the Angle effort, and particularly to “kicking the daylights out of [Ashjian]” — whom Russo calls a “fraud” — via hard-hitting television spots.

The Angle-Reid fight, he predicts, will be close till the end. “Harry Reid has so much money. They are throwing everything they can at [Angle]. We’re keeping a very close eye on it.” The same goes for Alaska, where Miller is battling incumbent GOP senator Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Scott McAdams.

In Delaware, O’Donnell has fallen behind Democrat Chris Coons in the polls, but Russo still sees hope. After upsetting moderate Rep. Mike Castle in the primary, she has been rocked by videos from decades-old television appearances, some of which include clips of her opining on masturbation and a minor brush with witchcraft. Still, Russo says that O’Donnell remains a fierce, undaunted campaigner, and he shrugs off the criticisms made by her detractors.

“O’Donnell has been the victim of character assassination,” Russo says. He admits that “Delaware is tougher,” but he looks forward to building an advertising presence in the state in coming weeks. “Our point will be that Coons is completely out of sync with the tenor of the times,” he says. “He can’t win on the issues, but Christine can.”

Russo, who got his start as a volunteer in Ronald Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign, pledges to deliver on his promises. His track record backs up the pledge. In January, the Tea Party Express ladled $350,000 into Massachusetts and helped Scott Brown capture the Bay State’s open Senate seat. In ensuing months, the group became a major force in GOP Senate primaries, shelling out nearly $1 million to boost Angle in Nevada and more than $600,000 to propel Miller over Murkowski in late August. O’Donnell, its most recent triumph, was supported with a $250,000 outreach campaign.

Russo says that he didn’t just pick up and start organizing a tea-party political-action committee because of Rick Santelli’s February 2009 broadcast. The Tea Party Express was actually founded in 2008 by Russo’s consulting firm, and it was initially dubbed the “Our Country Deserves Better PAC.” Its mission — a precursor of this year’s bus tour — was to tool across the country in recreational vehicles, championing “the Reaganesque conservatism of lower taxes, smaller government, a strong national defense, and respect for the strength of the family as the core of a strong America.” Weeks before the 2008 election, it hosted a “Stop Obama Tour,” a 14-day, 35-rally production.

As President Obama settled into office, Russo and his associates mulled their next step. In April 2009, soon after the first tea parties, Russo’s colleague Joe Wierzbicki drafted a memo to his boss about a potential role for the firm within the movement. Instead of fueling up for another “Stop Obama Tour,” Wierzbicki urged Russo to engage with the tea parties and fire a “warning shot across the bow” of “big-government liberals.” Soon, the RVs were replaced by a luxury tour bus, decked out in cherry and gold, with an image of the Constitution on its side.

“We created the political-action committee because while all of the other activity is great, at the end of the day, we have to change the people in office,” Russo says. “Our goal is to organize and show people that they are not alone, that there are millions of people who feel just like they do, and that their views are not being expressed in the mainstream media. If we could get out there, and get people engaged in concerted action, we could help them take back their country.”

With the name change came a modulation in the PAC’s message. “The Tea Party Express stands for people concerned about the growing size and intrusion of the federal government, along with higher taxes, onerous regulation, increasing deficits, and skyrocketing debt,” Russo says. “That’s it. That’s all the Tea Party Express stands for. We don’t have a social view or a take on cultural issues. I personally do, but the Tea Party Express does not. Same goes with foreign policy — it’s not part of our mission.”

The PAC, which can accept contributions only from individuals, quickly built up a database of nearly half a million people, including numerous members of the Perot family (Russo worked on Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign) and the actor Chuck Norris.

Victories, and stumbles, have followed. The group hit a roadblock this past summer when Mark Williams, then its chairman, was accused of racism by fellow tea-party activists. In a blog post, Williams, a former talk-radio host in California, called Obama an “Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug,” and chided “colored people” about their desire for a “wide-screen TV in every room.” Williams’s comments led the National Tea Party Federation, a broad coalition of tea-party groups, to expel the Tea Party Express from its ranks. Williams has since left the PAC.

Russo, of course, is also not a favorite with everyone in the tea-party movement. For some involved in what is often an amorphous uprising, Russo’s tactics can seem heavy-handed or, worse, opportunistic. According to the Times, Russo’s firm has raked in $3 million, a number he contests.

“Look,” Russo says. “We are trying to be the ones who show folks where to go and what to do once they get off the couch. . . . These things don’t just happen. Somebody has to shine a light. Our involvement in a series of primary wins has encouraged people, and shown others what we’re about.”

Indeed, making sclerotic incumbents and big-government Democrats squirm is Russo’s ultimate goal — not winning friends. When he hits the road next week, that’s what will be on his mind.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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