Tea Party Express' Conductor Crashes the Party

In New York, the Tea Party helped political novice Carl Paladino win the Republican nomination for governor and now it's put him in striking distance of Democrat Andrew Cuomo.

In a Quinnipiac poll out Wednesday, Paladino trails Cuomo among likely voters by just 6 points, and Tea Partiers pick Paladino over Cuomo 4 to 1.

Keep in mind, the Tea Party is not actually a political party. It's a movement led by people like Sal Russo, CBS News Correspondent Ben Tracy reports.

Special Section: Campaign 2010

The Tea Party prides itself on its grassroots, a movement with no master. But when it comes to winning, Russo, 63, may be the man behind the curtain.

"We've got to get everybody on the right page that growing the government, spending money that we don't have, is the wrong answer," Russo said.

Russo, a Republican strategist since the 1970s, has worked for Ronald Reagan and New York Gov. George Pataki. Now he heads the Tea Party Express, run out of an office in Sacramento, Calif.

Russo's group has produced a slew of slick TV ads, joined forces with Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin and put on more than 200 rallies.

"They're the ones who have managed to seize on the Tea Party momentum for the most fundraising success and political success," Politico's Ken Vogel said.

More Tea Party Coverage

Has the Tea Party Lost its Grassroots Cred?
Tea Party Patriots Gear Up for General
Tea Party Group to Address Obama's Spending Challenge
Sarah Palin Looks Like 2012 Candidate
WH Denies Planning Anti-Tea Party Ad Campaign
Obama: Tea Party "Misidentifying" Deficit Culprits

In Alaska, the Tea Party Express spent $600,000 to help unknown Joe Miller knock off incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. In Nevada, it spent $550,000 to take Sharon Angle from 5 percent in the polls to a now neck-and-neck race with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In Delaware, the group's $250,000 almost single-handedly helped Christine O'Donnell pull off a major upset last week, defeating the moderate Republican Rep. Mike Castle.

"Nobody gave any of these candidates a chance - zero chance, and we turned them all into winners," Russo said.

But O'Donnell is now trailing the Democrat. A November loss in Delaware could prevent Republicans from taking back the Senate.

Sixty percent of the people in the state don't think she's qualified to be their senator. But Russo said he doesn't think he backed the wrong candidate.

"I think she's great," Russo said.

That's because she calls herself a fiscal conservative, the only issue Russo says he cares about, but now his own spending is being questioned.

His group has doled out $8,177,485.92, and $4,119,070.11 has gone to reimburse the political consulting firms run by Russo and his wife, according to the Federal Election Commission.

That's not uncommon in politics, but it is more fuel for an ugly rift with other Tea Partiers. They worry the Express is the Republican party's attempt to co-opt their movement.

"They are a top-down organization designed to make political expenditures based on what a small, elite leadership team based out of a Republican consulting firm in Sacramento decides," said Mark Meckler of the group Tea Party Patriots.

Russo doesn't make much of such criticism.

"I would put it in one of three categories," he said. "It's either ignorance, stupidity, or malice."

As a proven winner, Russo doesn't need an invitation to the Tea Party. He's already crashed it.