Sal Russo got his start in politics as a teenager working for Ronald Reagan. Now he leads the Tea Party Express, a group that has delivered upset primary wins in three states and that others in the movement have criticized forcefully. In a recent interview, the Republican consultant gives his take on his organization, the movement, and where things are headed. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ: Have you been surprised by the effectiveness of your campaigns in Alaska, Delaware, and Nevada?
Russo: Politics can be quirky, and you never know. You can win or lose. I felt good about the races, and when we got in them I thought we were going to have a chance; and when we got close I definitely thought we could win them all. I wasn't completely certain about Delaware, but when I got out there and I saw the enthusiasm, of course we had our polls and we could see the polls closing -- it was a carbon copy of what was going on in Alaska -- that as people became aware they rallied to the cause.
NJ: You first worked in politics for Ronald Reagan, who as president was able to work with and unite a broad coalition on the right. Is there a connection for you between the politics of Reagan and the politics of the tea party movement?
Russo: There's a similarity in the movements, but just like when I was working for Jack Kemp when Jack was planning on running for president in '96, we knew that the Reagan coalition, as it was constructed for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, wasn't there in 1996. We needed to reconstruct it as the Kemp majority, much the way that George W. [Bush] redid it [so] that there was a "W. majority" that they used to build their 270 electoral votes.
So it changes. In the sense that this is a grassroots, down-home kind of movement like the Reagan revolution was, there are a lot of similarities. Are the coalitions the same? No, they're not gonna be the same, because the zeitgeist of the times is different. When Reagan was running, people feared nuclear holocaust and the threat of the Soviet Union and worldwide communism. Today we have Islamic terrorism, but the big issues that unite people in this country are the growth and intrusiveness of the federal government, and that's the coalition we want. If Ronald Reagan were involved in politics today, he'd be in the tea party movement. I think this would be a manifestation of what his ideas are.
NJ: Democrats seem happy with your results. If Joe Miller, Christine O'Donnell, and Sharron Angle lose their general elections [in Alaska, Delaware, and Nevada, respectively], will it still have been worth it to support them in the primaries?
Russo: Well, I think they're gonna win, but apart from that, the Carter White House was jubilant over Reagan's nomination. Jubilant celebrations in the White House: careful what you wish for. I think that these tea party candidates are what people are looking for, and I think they're going to be strong candidates.
The way I measure success is not whether we win or lose this election or that election, but the fact that we've changed the debate in America today, so that now every candidate, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, tends to be addressing the economic issues and the spending issues as if they were a member of the tea party movement. You find very few politicians, Barack Obama being an exception, which accounts for his falling poll numbers, I think, that say, "Hey, let's have a new federal program that we can't afford, and we'll just run a deficit this year and increase the national debt." Not many candidates [are] saying that. Not even liberals are saying that today. We have wiped that idea off the face of the Earth. I think that's the success of the tea party movement.
NJ: You've been adamant that you haven't profited off the movement, as some suggest, but you've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on media buys, most of which went though Russo Marsh and Associates or King Media [the firm run by Russo's wife, Janet King Russo], and you've said that you take a 15 percent commission on that. So there has been some money that went from the Tea Party Express to Russo Marsh, right?
Russo: Yes, absolutely, and I think the fees are on the [Federal Election Commission] report. I honestly don't have time and never have had time -- we're just too busy and too small for me to figure all these things out. But I thought the number that The New York Times reported [$700,000 to the two firms in commissions and fees over the last 20 months] was wrong.
So, yes, when I have to pay for the bus and the hotels and stuff, we get reimbursed for that, and that's a lot of money. Just because [our critics are] stupid, I don't want to be stupid. But, you know, Mark Meckler [the Tea Party Patriots' national coordinator] sits there with a [501(c)(4)] and won't disclose even to people on his board how they spend their money. You can't even find a City Council race in Grass Valley that they won. They don't do anything.
NJ: What number do you think is right?
Russo: I think that The Wall Street Journal had something like $479,000, and that's true, but that's what pays for everything. There's been no profit. That's not money that gets paid that you walk off with -- that pays for the rent and the phones and all the stuff that we do, so we've done this for no profit. I mean zero.
NJ: Do you regret hiring Mark Williams to be the front guy for the Tea Party Express originally?
Russo: That's a hard question. I suppose I don't regret anything in the sense that you do the best that you can, and not everything works out the way you'd like it to work out. He brought some pluses; he brought some minuses. I don't know how I can say it other than that.
NJ: What's next? It sounds as though you'll do another bus tour and then spend more money in Alaska, Delaware, and Nevada. Do you have any sense of other races you might get involved in?
Russo: People are pretty engaged, so the need for a big bus tour is diminishing. My guess is, we'll have one but it will probably be reduced. Obviously, we're gonna try to help push good candidates over the top, and by virtue of our pre-primary endorsements, that's a signal that those are candidates we're fond of. But there are some that we didn't do a lot for. We endorsed Marco Rubio [in Florida], but we didn't get involved because he didn't have a primary, so we certainly have an interest in his race. There are several House races where we endorsed, but we didn't have time or resources to put into them. We actually haven't gotten everybody back in the office since June, between being in Delaware and Alaska, so we need a little bit of time to regroup.
This article appears in the September 25, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.