Tea Party can thank Russo

The republic … isn’t designed to elect a bunch of experts,” says Florida’s Marco Rubio, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. That may be true, and is probably a source of comfort for Mr. Rubio. It is clearly one of the principles behind the Tea Party movement. But as election results have shown in states where the Tea Party has found success, “experts” are still critical to winning elections.

Although some of the movement faithful might take issue with this idea, it seems that the involvement of an aging GOP “expert” was key to Christine O’Donnell’s win in Delaware last week. Sal Russo’s Tea Party Express dropped a $250,000 “money bomb,” as Russo likes to call it, on Delaware voters. The result was an energized conservative grass roots that turned out in unexpected numbers on Election Day and produced one of 2010’s most stunning upsets. Yes, voters are angry all over America. Yes, many are channeling that anger into support for Tea Party candidates. But no, they are nowhere near a majority. A poll of Delaware voters this week shows that only 21 percent strongly support the Tea Party while 40 percent strongly oppose it. 

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Tea Party support is far from a majority. One could even argue that such tepid support doesn’t make for much of a movement. But when those numbers are energized for a primary election, they can have an impact. Especially when the messages that motivate them are carefully crafted to have broader appeal — to speak to the concerns of voters who might not support the Tea Party per se. That is what seems to have happened in Delaware — and it didn’t happen by accident.

Sal Russo is a longtime political operative who first learned his craft working in Sacramento for then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. In mid-April of 2009 he and his team saw real potential in the disparate and disjointed anti-tax protests organized around tax-filing day. Russo converted a floundering political action committee he’d established in the 2008 presidential campaign into the Tea Party Express — a very clever entrepreneurial and political move on his part. His firm organized a two-week road trip to raise money in the home states of incumbents Russo considered “big spenders,” and it hasn’t looked back since. He’s raised over $5 million since — much of which has been pumped into campaigns in Nevada, Delaware, Alaska and other states.

Russo is an “expert” in political communication — a “hack” to the purists who think making a statement is more important than winning an election. Well, Russo’s been called that and worse. But he knows how to win elections and he generally only puts his winning ways to work for candidates or causes he believes in. Russo’s political pedigree confirms that he believes in what Tea Party candidates stand for. He was a blue-collar kid who turned his back on his Democrat heritage to work for Barry Goldwater in 1964. He remains a fiscal conservative to this day. 

Russo just happens to be a smart enough pro to see the political potential in a ragtag group of activists who finally moved from grousing about the political direction of the country to actually doing something. His Tea Party Express has been the most effective arm of what is still a disparate movement. Mark Meckler, national spokesman for Tea Party Patriots, another faction of the movement, called Russo’s group “the classic top-down organization run by GOP consultants … the antithesis of what the Tea Party movement is all about.” There may be a little familial rivalry going on here, but Meckler just doesn’t get the message. The GOP establishment does not run Russo’s group — in fact, it makes party leaders very nervous. His is just the most effective arm of a 2010 political phenomenon that is winning because it knows what it is doing. And, after all, isn’t that what it is all about?

Russo’s success is contributing to the credibility of all Tea Party groups, including the Tea Party Patriots, who just this week announced a $1 million donation from an as yet anonymous businessman. Successful entrepreneurs don’t donate a million dollars to groups that can’t win elections. Russo is proving the Tea Party can. As grassroots pure as Meckler and others would like to be, a major lesson from Delaware, Nevada and Alaska is that Mr. Smith doesn’t get to Washington unless there is a Mr. Russo in the backroom.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcpublicaffairs.com