- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2010

From Alaska to Florida, the swelling “tea party” front catapulted underdog candidates in Republican primaries this year, but one of its greatest forces has been a highly organized California-based group initially formed to defeat Barack Obama’s presidential bid.

The Tea Party Express has donated at least $2.1 million to candidates in the past year and, beyond the money, its endorsements have given candidates the tea party stamp of approval - a coveted label for long-shot conservatives in this year’s unusually contested Republican primaries.

“They were the candidate that voters wanted; [voters] just needed to be aware that this person was competitive and could win,” said Tea Party Express spokesman Levi Russell. “That gives them the willingness to cast their vote for the true conservative.”

He said the group’s backing eliminates the fear of “wasting” a vote on a fringe candidate with no chance of winning.

In Alaska, it gave life to Joe Miller, a political neophyte who shockingly defeated eight-year incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a razor-thin primary contest. In Utah, it produced Mike Lee’s triumph over Republican Sen. Robert Bennett, and it’s given Sharron Angle a shot at unseating Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate’s No. 1 Democrat.

And in what is considered the electoral detonation of the movement, the group played a role in Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s special election victory for the seat held for decades by the Democratic icon, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. He died in August 2009.

Despite the group’s mission to help more Republicans get elected to Congress, the Tea Party Express has butted heads with the GOP establishment and others in the movement.

Mrs. Murkowski complained that the California outfit unfairly tampered with local Alaska politics. And the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), the fundraising arm of Senate Republicans, also has a tepid relationship with the group.

“We only hope that the Tea Party Express will devote the same energy and resources against the Democrats this fall as they have in recent Republican primaries, because winning back the Senate should be our shared goal,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh.

Others have accused the Tea Party Express of exploiting the tea party name and being nothing more than a front group for the Republican establishment.

“It’s disingenuous as hell, it’s a branding maneuver,” said Matt Robbins, national executive director of American Majority, a nonprofit conservative training group that has worked with tea party activists and candidates nationwide.

“They’re shrewd … they know how to successfully sort of blur that line in a very profitable way,” he said.

The Tea Party Express in July was expelled from the National Tea Party Federation, a broad coalition of regional and national tea party groups, after one of its key members, controversial conservative radio host Mark Williams, was accused of writing a racist blog entry. The federation said it took action after the Tea Party Express refused to expel Mr. Williams. Tea Party Express countered that Mr. Williams voluntarily stepped down a month before the controversy and is no longer with the group.

Unlike the overall tea party movement - a loose patchwork of grass-roots groups with little command structure - the Tea Party Express is a political action committee, or PAC. It started as Our Country Deserves Better, a PAC formed in 2008 to oppose Mr. Obama.

Our Country Deserves Better was the brainchild of a team of powerful California Republicans - most notably Sal Russo, a well-connected and influential political strategist and a mainstay in Golden State Republican politics for more than four decades.

The group eventually changed its name to Our Country Deserves Better-Tea Party Express, though it mostly goes by Tea Party Express.

But its officials don’t apologize for their mission or financial strength.

“We’re a PAC because we believe that change comes from political action, not from sitting around and blogging on your computer or waving flags at a rally, even though blogging and rallies are part of the game,” said Mr. Russo, the group’s chief strategist.

He also defended his Republican activist roots, which he put down in the 1960s as an aide to California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who he said was considered an outsider by the California GOP establishment for years.

“I don’t think anybody has better credentials for having worked in the conservative movement for the last 44 years than I do,” Mr. Russo said.

The Tea Party Express in recent days adopted another long-shot conservative Senate candidate, Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, and committed to spend $250,000 on her campaign against Rep. Michael N. Castle leading up to the Tuesday primary vote.

Mr. Castle, a nine-term House member who was re-elected two years ago with 61 percent of the vote, is considered a heavy favorite to win the GOP primary for the seat formerly held by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Democratic Sen. Ted Kaufman, who was appointed to fill the remaining two years of Mr. Biden’s term, is retiring.