Leader of movement says the Tea Party needs positive focus

Tea Party Express founder Sal Russo is cautioning conservatives to make sure they’re articulating big ideas and not just slamming Democrats heading into 2016. 

“Politics is a game of addition, not a game of subtraction,” Russo told The Hill during a lunch interview last week. “One of the things we feel like has been mischaracterized widely is ‘conservatives don’t have any ideas, all we do is vote “no” on President Obama’s wonderful agenda.’ ”

ADVERTISEMENT

Russo and his organization are looking to change that, pushing the movement away from ideological litmus tests and toward a broader governing strategy. 

To help spur those new ideas, the Tea Party Express will release a book in the coming weeks filled with essays from 30 members of Congress, including a few presidential contenders and a number of members not usually viewed as Tea Party allies. 

Russo promises the compilation will focus on positive ideas to shrink the government and improve the economy — not tearing down Democrats.

“Some people want to define the Tea Party as who they think is ‘good.’ Well, that’s ridiculous,” he said. “Do you support our goals of reducing the size of the federal government and support pro-growth economic policies? I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a liberal or whoever the heck you are if you support the policies we’re for.”

“This is all about ideas, this isn’t about ‘my group gets credit’ or ‘he isn’t a Tea Party person,’ ” Russo continued. “That’s nonsense, it’s the ideas that matter.”

The longtime GOP operative began his career in politics as then-California gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan’s personal aide in 1966, and worked with him through his presidency. 

Russo uses those Reagan-era anecdotes now to argue that the Tea Party movement needs to be less focused on purity tests and more focused on big ideas.

“[Reagan] realized to be successful, to win you have to give to get … I don’t think they’ve done a very good job of that,” he said of congressional Republicans. “Is some congressman going to move the whole [Congress] and get Obama to sign [a bill]? It’s just not practical. … Pick your battles so that you can have victories.”

He also argued that the biggest divide in the GOP is no longer ideological but tactical. Russo makes the case that two blocs need to make a concerted effort to be on the same page. 

The Tea Party leader points out that nearly every Republican in office today is much more conservative than those Reagan dealt with in the early 1980s, some of whom might be considered liberal by today’s standards.

“When Reagan became president, he had all these big-government Republicans. There are zero today. [Maine Sen.] Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsPresident tightens grip on federal watchdogs The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump gets new press secretary in latest shake-up Trump takes heat for firing intel watchdog during pandemic MORE isn’t a big-government Republican; I’ve known Susan Collins [for decades], she’s not a big-government Republican. [Illinois Sen.] Mark KirkMark Steven KirkOn the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Biden campaign releases video to explain 'what really happened in Ukraine' Why Republicans are afraid to call a key witness in the impeachment inquiry MORE isn’t a big-government Republican.

“There are not any — zero. They don’t exist anymore.”

In defending the two centrist Republicans that often draw the ire of Tea Party activists, Russo called media coverage of the GOP ideological battle “silly.” 

“There is no ideological gulf,” he argued. “The only difference is how do we get there. There’s different ideas about how to get there, and some people have unrealistic ideas and some people have no ideas.”

Russo’s bold statements might not be welcome among the movement at large; the Tea Party Express fills an unusual — and sometimes controversial — niche in the broader movement’s structure.

The group is best known for Tea Party responses to the annual State of the Union. While it’s drawn some big names in past years — Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul volunteering at hospital after negative coronavirus test Georgia governor says he didn't know asymptomatic people could spread coronavirus McConnell: Impeachment distracted government from coronavirus threat MORE (R-Ky.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeJustice IG pours fuel on looming fight over FISA court Senator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy Trump on Romney's negative coronavirus test: 'I am so happy I can barely speak' MORE (R-Utah), former Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannEvangelicals shouldn't be defending Trump in tiff over editorial Mellman: The 'lane theory' is the wrong lane to be in White House backs Stephen Miller amid white nationalist allegations MORE (R-Minn.) — its efforts didn’t get as much attention this year, when Rep. Curt Clawson (R-Fla.) gave the speech.

The organization also spends little on supporting candidates directly, instead focusing on email petitions and fundraisers, calls to supporters, mail pieces and its famous bus tours.

That’s led to criticism in the press and by some Republicans, who have accused Russo of lining his pockets with donations rather than spending them on efforts to help the movement. 

Of the $12.6 million it spent last cycle, the Tea Party Express used just $313,000 on direct candidate contributions — but $9.3 million for fundraising. Russo, Marsh & Associates, a consulting firm owned by Russo, received just shy of $5 million for its efforts in the cycle.

Russo argued those charges are misleading, saying the bus tours, direct calls to backers and the costs of its regular emails and renting servers they use are where most of the money goes. 

He said the group’s main focus was on getting activists involved in the movement rather than directing its focus specifically to candidates and races, noting their past accomplishments: 12 bus tours, close to 500 rallies, co-sponsoring a presidential debate and the Tea Party State of the Union responses.

“Our role has continued to be to give grassroots people a sense that they have a voice in the process so that it was worth them staying engaged and involved. We were never going to be able to drop $5 million for this candidate, you can’t do that as a small donor PAC,” he said. “We get cheap-shotted, ‘they spend all their money on overhead.’ Well yes, we do, but all these things, the bus tours, all the emails, we do keep people engaged, motivated and enthused.”

Russo’s group helped elect a number of GOP senators in 2010 when the movement was in its beginnings, but has most recently drawn negative attention for backing a winning primary challenge against then-Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) in 2012 and candidates who came up short in 2014 against Sens. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranEspy wins Mississippi Senate Democratic primary Bottom Line Mike Espy announces Mississippi Senate bid MORE (R-Miss.) and Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsCoronavirus stimulus talks hit setback as crisis deepens Garth Brooks accepts Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize for Popular Song GOP, Democrats hash out 2020 strategy at dueling retreats MORE (R-Kan.). 

Going forward, he says, most of the Tea Party Express’s focus will be on electing and protecting like-minded conservatives. 

Many of the senators the group backed in 2010 are facing tough reelection battles this time around, and he said while the presidential race is the top priority party-wide, the group will focus more down-ballot.

“We have seven Tea Party senators up. Our priority is to help reelect them,” he said.