Sal Russo, of Russo, Marsh & Associates, overstates his case / Credit: lookingattheleft.com
The so-called Tea Party wouldn’t amount to much in this election season were it not for the surprising financial muscle behind it. The Tea Party Express is widely cited as one of the transformational campaign PACs playing this role. But who are they really?
Last December, TMPMuckraker outed The Tea Party Express PAC and its parent entity, Our Country Deserves Better (OCDB), as a projects spearheaded by Sal Russo and his Sacramento-based Russo, Marsh, and Associates, an old-school Republican PR firm. The article pointed out that Russo’s own firm received the lion’s share of some $1.33 million in expenditures reported on under FEC rules last November. This and similar reports raised some eyebrows at the time and even set off a tiff between the Tea Party Express and a rival group, the Tea Party Patriots. Salon’s Justin Elliott did a nice piece last month offering an overview of the group, “What you need to know about the Tea Party Express.” He highlighted the role the Express playing in the Christine O'Donnell and Joe Miller primary wins, a fact that has been widely reported since.
The Center for Responsive Politics, through its website, opensecrets.org, published a breakdown of the most recent Tea Party Express/ Our Country Deserves Better spending report, based on data released on September and October 13th. The report reveals much about where the Tea Party Express’s true interests lie. I don’t suppose it would surprise you that the Tea Party Express is really gloves-off Republican electoral politics as usual. But would you have guessed that 40 percent of the PAC’s funding is devoted to offing Harry Reid—and Sharon Angle is likely little more than a handy tool?
Remember Gray Davis?
So who are Russo, Marsh, and Associates? The firm’s associates and pals are a cadre that came together in 2003 around the successful campaign to impeach California Governor Gray Davis. This pedigree qualifies them for the hidebound, deep-cover, dirty-politics-as-usual approach that goes right down the center lane of big-money Republican strategy—and not even that of the hard-core conservative wing. Rather, this crowd recalls with gusto the era of their native son, Ronald Reagan.
OCDB chair Howard Kaloogian, an old-school California pol, initiated the Grey Davis recall. Chief Strategist Sal Russo is a Reagan-smitten neocon. PAC Coordinator Joe Wierzbicki is a Davis recall alum, as is Director of Field Operations Tiffiny Ruegner, who is also a Prop 8 veteran and a mean-ass anti-Obama blogger in her spare time. (Sample post: “Who said it; Goebbels or Obama?”)
Amy Kremer, a former flight attendant and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, is little more than a cipher hired as a mouthpiece for the group after former head Mark Williams wrote his famous letter praising slavery from the point of view of “colored people.” Though she has been cited as an emerging Tea Party leader in some quarters, she couldn’t spin her way out of a paper bag in a recent Washington Post blog feature. She pulls down a salary in the low five figures as a “safe” nominal head of group that spews millions without taking its gloves off.
What’s interesting about this group is their sworn devotion to the “cut off the head” strategy that characterized their Gray Davis offensive. And that is what they are really about in this election cycle. Their focus is the Senate. They want it back in Republican hands and they want Harry Reid’s head on a platter. That is why 40% of the $2.5 million they spent (not counting the substantial money they are skimming to line their own pockets—remember these are Republicans, not Tea Partiers) went to defeating the Democratic majority leader.
Their FEC report shows the group spent $613,407 on behalf of Sharron Angle and another $387,849 against Harry Reid, for a grand total of $1,001,256 invested in the Nevada Senate race. Their secondary cause was Alaska. They invested $603,903 on behalf of Alaska’s Joe Miller. By contrast, the Christine O’Donnell race, where they invested a total of $248,623, seemed to be an afterthought. If you add in the $347,670 they spent earlier in the year on Scott Brown in Massachusetts, you pretty much have their entire electoral agenda.
The Tea Party Express is all about the Senate, and it’s all about Harry Reid. It’s all about the wars between the Republicans and the Democrats and surrounding the emerging Tea Party candidates with enough money so that they come to clearly understand who calls the tune. So how do you reckon with the rising tide of Tea Party politics if you are an old-school Reagan Republican? You buy it, that’s how.