Political leanings: Conservative
Spending target: Unknown, spent more than $5 million so far
The Tea Party Express is a California-based political action committee formed in the summer of 2009 to support the tea party movement. The group was founded by longtime Republican strategist Sal Russo, a founder and principle partner of Russo Marsh & Rogers who got his start in politics as a volunteer for Ronald Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign in California.
Joe Wierzbicki, another principle at Russo Marsh with a background in communications and marketing, developed the idea for the Tea Party Express, the New York Times reported in a Sept. 18 article. The new group uses Russo Marsh’s existing political action committee, Our Country Deserves Better PAC, to raise money. That PAC was established in 2008 to oppose Barack Obama. Russo is the PAC’s chief strategist, and former California state legislator Howard Kaloogian is its co-chairman, according to the PAC’s website.
As a federal political action committee, Our Country Deserves Better can accept no more than $5,000 per year from any single source and must disclose its donors. Among its top donors: actor Chuck Norris, a Republican activist who backed Mike Huckabee for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, and Henry "Ross" Perot Jr., chairman of Hillwood Development in Texas, and son of former third-party presidential candidate Henry "Ross" Perot.
The Tea Party Express is the largest supporter of tea party candidates. According to Federal Election Commission records, its PAC has raised more than $5.3 million and spent $5.2 million in this campaign cycle as of Aug. 4. Tea Party Express spokesman Levi Russell said the group has no fundraising goal. "We spend money as fast as it’s raised, and don’t keep any cash reserve, so how much we’re able to raise depends entirely on our supporters," Russell told us in an e-mail.
The group’s PAC has run attack ads against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Nevada race, but mostly it has gained attention for helping to knock off establishment-backed Republicans in GOP Senate primaries. The group spent $600,000 to help Joe Miller upset Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska and nearly $250,000 to help Christine O’Donnell defeat Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware, FEC records show. The Delaware Republican Party filed a complaint with the FEC alleging that the Tea Party Express violated campaign finance laws by illegally coordinating with O’Donnell’s campaign — a charge the group called a "smear campaign."