The Tea Party Picks Up Steam, Donations

The Tea Party began life as an apparently spontaneous expression of populist resistance to the Obama administration and Democrats in power. But this year its favored candidates have increasing benefited from big-time supporters, including top funders and even the Republican Party itself.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As David informs us, Ron Johnson has a personal fortune behind him, as well as support from the Tea Party. The Tea Party movement has lately attracted conservative activists with deep pockets and deep experience in campaigns. We're going to talk about this with NPR news analyst Juan Williams, who's in our studios.

Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What does it mean that political veterans are involved here in the Tea Party?

WILLIAMS: Well, as the Tea Party's picked up steam with primary challenges that have become primary victories over establishment GOP candidates, it's become a matter of the grassroots in some case growing, but also maybe some Astroturf, you know, getting involved...

INSKEEP: The professionals getting in there.

WILLIAMS: ...something that's manufactured, if you will. Or something that's being exploited by political professionals and maybe by big business that has other purposes in mind for what the Tea Party could do for them.

The brand has become a magnet, also, for political professionals. You know, you think about it for a second, there's a Tea Party Patriots group. They got in a million dollars donations this month, September, anonymously. A million dollars, we don't know where from.

Tea Party Express - now here's a group that's being run by Sal Russo, who's a longtime Republican activist involved with everybody, from Ronald Reagan down the line. And his PAC was called Our Country Deserves Better. It's been rebranded now, as Tea Party Express to capture that Tea Party energy.

And then you have Freedom Works which is run by the former Republican House leader, Dick Armey. So he's involved. And there's Tea Party Nation - but all of it, to capture this energy behind the Tea Party Movement.

INSKEEP: Which is a little complicated here, because you do have people now, in general election campaigns, of course, they want professional behind them. They want money behind them. But the rhetoric of the Tea Party has focused on the notion that Washington is broken, that insiders are wrong; and in fact, much of the rhetoric has - even thought it's mostly been aimed at Democrats - they've emphasized this is non partisan, we're not happy with either party.

How does it change things if you have a lot of these party establishment figures getting involved?

WILLIAMS: Well, what you have is then all of a sudden, for example, you know, the most famous case would be Christine O'Donnell in Delaware.

INSKEEP: Senate nominee, Republican.

WILLIAMS: Right, Republican Senate nominee. She had some Tea Party support but it wasn't getting her much impact. Then Sal Russo and the Tea Party Express, the political professionals come in, Steve. And they did radio fundraising. They did political rallies. And then they dropped what they call The Money Bomb. The Money Bomb was $250,000 in TV ads.

So Russo, who's raised over five million since January, as Tea Party Express -with a big share of that going to his consulting firm and his wife's - then has this tremendous impact, and Christine O'Donnell is able to win.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, there were other Republican Party professionals who were dismayed by Christine O'Donnell's victory in Delaware. They wanted a different candidate who they considered more electable in the general election.

Which raises another question, Juan Williams: How much tension is there now between the party establishment and some of the Tea Party figures who have won Republican primaries, who are now the official nominees of the party?

WILLIAMS: Look, I think there's evidence that there's a civil war still going within the Republican Party right now. I think it was evident, specifically, with the Christine O'Donnell case, where you have Republican Party establishment people who did not support her, don't think that she's electable in Delaware, can't win. They thought Mike Castle could win - he was her opponent in the Republican primary in Delaware.

And now, it becomes a matter of who do we support and what do they stand for; especially looking forward in terms of who comes to Washington in the future. And you have several groups that are raising money outside of the Tea Party people who are giving money, sometimes trying again pick up on Tea Party enthusiasm people. Like Americans for Prosperity, which are the David and Charles Coke group. And then you have American Crossroads, which is Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie.

And you have - I mean right now, there was seven times as much spending by outside Republican groups as outside Democrat's groups in the first few weeks of September.

INSKEEP: One quick question here, though. Is there a question in the end of who's going to co-opt whom? Whether Republican establishment figures will co-opt and use the Tea Party, or whether in the end the Tea Party might move the Republican Party?

WILLIAMS: This is what I was trying to suggest before to you, Steve, that if you look forward now: Who gets elected, what kind of caucuses get formed, what do they stand for? Is it that the GOP establishment now is claiming the Tea Party in hopes that they will co-op the Tea Party? Or could it be that the Tea Party is becoming so powerful that the Republican establishments will have to take a backseat?

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: As always, NPR News analyst Juan Williams in our studios this morning.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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