'Tea Party Express' Shakes Up GOP And The Movement Formed by a longtime Republican consultant in California, it has grabbed national attention with its cross-country bus tour and high-profile association with Sarah Palin and others. But some in the Tea Party movement see the Express as old-fashioned.
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'Tea Party Express' Shakes Up GOP And The Movement

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'Tea Party Express' Shakes Up GOP And The Movement

'Tea Party Express' Shakes Up GOP And The Movement

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Im Robert Siegel.

Republican campaign consultant Sal Russo has been on a roll. Candidates backed by his Tea Party Express have beaten the GOP establishment choices in Senate primaries across the country. Russos critics charge that he has co-opted the Tea Party brand to push an old fashioned partisan agenda.

NPR's Ina Jaffe has this profile of Russo and the Tea Party Express.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We're the Tea Party Express and we're rocking through your town...

JAFFE: The Tea Party Express rocked through Reno, Nevada, last week, starting a tour that will take them through 19 states by Election Day. It's the group's fourth such tour and theyve got the drill down, with the shiny customized buses and super star conservative speakers.

Ms. SARAH PALIN (R-Alaska, Former Governor): Thank you so much. Im so glad to get to be here. Thank you.

JAFFE: And thats the brightest star of them all, Sarah Palin, giving loyalists their marching orders.

Ms. PALIN: Heaven forbid we just roll over. No, that is why we do all that we can between now and November 2nd, in order to turn this country back around.

JAFFE: Reno is the hometown of Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle. She's running neck and neck with Senate majority leader Harry Reid. But during the primary campaign, she was polling at about five percent until the Tea Party Express backed her with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of radio and TV commercials. The Express had similar success in Delaware with Christine O'Donnell, in Alaska with Joe Miller, and in Utah with Mike Lee.

Mr. SAL RUSSO (Activist, Tea Party): Every primary we've gotten engaged in we've been successful. So it's been a good string.

JAFFE: Says a very satisfied Sal Russo. He's 63 years old and has been in politics in California for his entire career. In 2003, he was a driving force behind the successful recall of Democratic Governor Gray Davis, which made Arnold Schwarzenegger governor.

Now with the Tea Party Express, Russo is sticking a monkey wrench in the Republican machine, says Ray McNally, another veteran Sacramento Republican consultant.

Mr. RAY MCNALLY (consultant, Republican Party): Sal is saying, well, the current Republican establishment isn't really the establishment that I want to be part of.

JAFFE: Ray McNally has known Russo for 35 years and says he's always been at the conservative end of the spectrum.

Mr. MCNALLY: You know, and sometimes that means doing things that kind of shakes up the establishment or the status quo, and clearly he's not afraid to do that.

JAFFE: The Tea Party Express is the offspring of another Russo PAC, which was focused on running ads attacking Barack Obama.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Woman: He says he'll play nicey-nice with Islamic militants who want to kill Americans, both here at home and abroad.

JAFFE: But that organization was languishing. An internal memo observed that, quote, "we are sadly not part of the Tea Party establishment," and suggested getting in on the action with a bus tour labeled the Tea Party Express.

Some other some other Tea Party activists have complained that they just co-opted the brand. Mark Meckler is the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.

Mr. MARK MECKLER (Co-Founder, Tea Party Patriots): We are a grassroots organization and they are a Republican PAC, based out of a Republican consulting organizations.

JAFFE: Since he started the Tea Party Express, Russo's organization has raised about $6.6 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A lot of that money has passed through Russo's consulting firm. But Russo insists he's not even turning a profit.

Mr. RUSSO: It's been done at a personal sacrifice. It's something we believe in. You know, theres so many false things that are said: We're bunch of Astroturf; we're a bunch of racists; a bunch of nuts; you know, we're pocketing all the money.

I can't respond to, you know, all the silliness that goes on.

JAFFE: Russo says he's focused on just one single issue.

Mr. RUSSO: The growing intrusiveness of the federal government and the accompanied higher taxes, increasing deficits and the skyrocketing national debt. Thats the only issue we care about.

JAFFE: And thats the basis on which he decided which candidates to back.

Mr. RUSSO: We don't care about where you stand on the environment, or the war, or the Patriot Act, or abortion or same-sex marriage. I don't even know where most of these candidates stand on most of their issues.

JAFFE: That lack of information has led to some surprises.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Ms. CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (R-Delaware, Senatorial Candidate): Im not a witch. Im nothing youve heard...

JAFFE: Thats the now-famous commercial from another Russo pick, Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, who once claimed to have dabbled in witchcraft.

O'Donnell won her primary after the Tea Party Express dumped a quarter of a million dollars into this tiny state. But she's now trailing in most polls by double digits.

Again, GOP consultant Ray McNally.

Mr. MCNALLY: There are members of the Republican establishment that are not happy with Sal or the Tea Party Express, and that they're saying: Hey, look, you're putting some seats at risk that should easily be won by Republican candidates. So if he loses, you know, there'll be a price to pay.

JAFFE: The price could be high if Tea Party losses deny the GOP a Senate majority. But thats a worry for another day. Right now, the Tea Party Express bus tour rolls on right up to the election.

UNIDENTIED GROUP: (Singing) Hey, can you hear us? Can you hear us? Can you hear us now?

JAFFE: Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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