“Of course people are going to do half-assed, crazy, stupid things.”
That is Sal Russo, a longtime GOP operative and impresario of a tea party faction. He was talking about fellow tea partiers.
Russo spoke from the lobby restaurant of the Marriott Waterside Hotel, the nerve center of Mitt Romney’s campaign in Tampa. Russo has a room here, and there’s no shortage of tea party activists—especially Ron Paul devotees—who would regard Russo’s presence in the land of Romney as half-assed, crazy, and stupid. Russo denies he has sold out tea party advocacy for a comfy couch in Romney’s Tampa lair, frequently exchanging ideas on strategy and voter mobilization.
“I’m in the Romney high command hotel,” Russo said with a smile. “Romney doesn’t wear a tea party lapel pin. But Marco Rubio doesn’t and Paul Ryan doesn’t, and they’re tea party favorites. I put Romney in that category. It gets the movement to the same place.”
Russo is the executive director of the Tea Party Express, a political action committee that endorsed heavily and successfully in 2010 but saw some of its chosen candidates—Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware—crash in ignominious defeat. Russo has no regrets about those choices and argues the secret of tea party vitality is in its grassroots, atomized feistiness.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Is the tea party fragmenting or growing?’ ” Russo said. “When it splits, it’s adding to the vitality.”
Fissures are plenty visible in the many layers of the antiestablishment ethos of the tea party.
Paul supporters remain suspicious of Russo and all others, even the Club for Growth and Freedom Works, big players in the tea party endorsement and money game. Russo’s PAC has been a piker this cycle, dropping only $465,000 into independent expenditures, while Club for Growth has spent $11.2 million and Freedom Works $2.9 million.
Still, Russo contends the Express retains its vitality and can apply its seal of approval in GOP primaries. Russo backed Richard Mourdock against Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana and Ted Cruz in Texas against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst—victories both. But Russo lost in Nebraska, where he backed Jon Bruning instead of three-way primary winner Deb Fischer, and in Missouri, where Sarah Steelman lost to Rep. Todd Akin in another three-way primary.
“Sometimes you don’t get the best candidates,” Russo said, shaking his head about Akin’s victory. “You can’t win everything.”
Russo also backed Sen. Orrin Hatch in his successful effort to defeat his GOP primary challenger, state Sen. Dan Liljenquist. And in a rare display of tea party insider-dwelling, he even backed Rep. Jerry Lewis of California in his bid to lead the House Appropriations Committee. The mere existence of a letter signed by Russo for Lewis as the head of the spending committee, in the eyes of tea party purists, marked the end of his credibility as an antiestablishment crusader. Hatch and Lewis, Russo said, were longtime friends.
Russo candidly admits tea party endorsements now have much more to do with temperament and generation than ideology.
In essence, he argues that tea party advocates have already redirected the GOP on the big issues, even if Romney, Rubio, Ryan, and others don’t reflexively do their bidding.
“You don’t find many Republicans taking on the tea party agenda,” Russo said. “The biggest difference between this cycle and 2010 is we can’t find hardly any Republicans to fight anymore.”
Russo didn’t just start fighting Republicans in 2009. He was a top adviser to Ross Perot in 1992 and said that tea party anger at government today is merely an echo of the sentiments Perot gave voice to with his petition-drive candidacy fueled by volunteer activists in all 50 states.
But Russo said Perot taught him two valuable lessons: Don’t tie outside movements to one leader (when Perot fell from favor, his movement died); and don’t try to control activists from a central command center.
“The last thing I want is control,” Russo said.
But a room with a view in Romney-land? That will do just fine.
This article appears in the August 29, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.