Tea Party Express: We Turn Politics on Its Head

The chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, Sal Russo, on "Face the Nation," Sept. 26, 2010.
The chief strategist for the Tea Party Express today disputed reports that his organization is funded by shadowy, deep-pocketed corporate interests, stating that by law they can only accept small donations from individual contributors.

Last Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation," former President Bill Clinton said that Tea Party groups are being bankrolled by shadowy wealthy interests who want to weaken government, so there would be an even greater - and unaccountable - concentration of power.

Today on "Face the Nation," Bob Schieffer questioned Sal Russo, a political consultant for the Tea Party Express, about the source of $5.2 million in campaign funds his organization has spent (according to data on the website opensecrets.org) on several races across the country.

These funds include:

• $1,000,000 to Sharon Angle who is running against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada;
• $350,000 to Scott Brown, who was elected to the Senate in Massachusetts earlier this year;
• $600,000 to Joe Miller, who won the GOP primary in Alaska against incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski; and
• $250,000 to Christine O'Donnell, who pulled an upset in Delaware.

"Where do you get this money?" Schieffer asked.

"Well, the Tea Party Express is a federal political action committee. We don't have a 501(c)3 or a 527 or any of these other devices. So all of our money has to come from individuals," Russo said. "By law we can't take corporate donations, and our contributions are limited to less than $5,000. So we have about a half-million members around the country. They contribute, I think, about an average of $62, $63 per person.

"So we're the purist form of democracy, I think, in the Tea Party movement," Russo said, "in the sense that when we want to do something we don't have any money to start with. We have to send an e-mail out to our people and say, 'Hey, we think Sharon Angle will be a great candidate in Nevada. Do you want to get behind her? Here's what we want to do to get on television.' They have to send us money to finance it.

"We're very responsive to what our people want. If we have good ideas, then they respond by contributing, and we're able to go out and help these campaigns."

"So are you telling me that you don't get any donation larger than $5,000? No way, no how somebody could give your organization more than that, one single person?" Schieffer asked.

"That's absolutely correct," Russo replied.

He suggested investigations into who is financing Tea Party activists (such as Jane Mayer's recent expose of the billionaire Koch brothers in The New Yorker) is "one of the things we've had to face from the beginning . . . people have tried to demonize the Tea Party movement with a lot of false accusations. As you know, first it was we were all Astroturf - somebody was paying to turn out. Then we're a bunch of crackpots and nuts and a bunch of racists."

Russo said that while some Tea Party groups have focused on foreign policy or social issues, the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express is singularly focused on fundamental economic issues. "That's the basis for which we choose our candidates."

When Schieffer asked if he thought backing candidates that are further to the right might cause Republicans to lose races in the general election they might have won with more centrist candidates, Russo seemed to suggest the movement will flout pundits' expectations.

"If you look back to February of 2009 which is really the beginning of the Tea Party movement with Rick's rant, the Republican Party was going the way of the Whigs. The Democrats had a big generic advantage in the ballot. And they were saying that the Democrats were going to break the historic trend for in-parties and that Democrats were actually going to win House and Senate seats in 2010.

"Well, look what's happened. We've turned the political system on its head. What's done that is that millions of Americans, many of whom have been sitting out of the political process, have gotten involved in the campaigns. So we're now winning Senate seats and House seats that people didn't even think were possible 18 months ago.

"I think the Tea Party movement has been a big boost for economically conservative candidates," he said. "Sometimes that may not help Republicans, and sometimes it does. But I think what people want to do is send a message to Washington that we have to get off this fiscal insanity merry-go-round that just keeps going round and round and round, whether Republicans or Democrats are in control."

In addition to fiscal conservatism, Russo added another trait common to candidates the Tea Party Express has supported:

"A little bit of independence, a willingness to stand up and say 'This emperor has no clothes.' So if you look at our candidates, they're all pretty independent cusses. That's what we need."

When asked for a prediction on whether the Republican Party will take control of either the House or Senate, both or neither, Russo demurred.

"You know, we still have a ways to go, but I think we're going to have tremendous gains, and more importantly the kinds of people that we are electing are going to be willing to stand up for more responsible fiscal policy in Washington."

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.