Take a Ride on the Tea Party Express

On a Saturday in late March, 8,000 Tea Partiers gathered as wind whipped across the open Nevada desert, milling around their RVs, sitting in camping chairs and waving signs.

They had assembled in Searchlight, the hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to voice their displeasure with the new Democratic regime in Washington and to receive some encouragement from Sarah Palin, who would rally the crowd, her speech notes flapping in the wind.

The Searchlight rally would mark a turning point in the burgeoning Tea Party movement. It would be Palin's second-ever appearance at a Tea Party event, an appearance for which she would not be paid, despite her rumored speaking fee of $100,000 (discounted to $75,000 if held on the West Coast).

And it would mark the true ascension of a rising political group--the California-based Tea Party Express--which put on the rally to launch its third Tea Party-themed bus tour, a trip that would take it across 28 states, from the southwest desert through the great plains and up along the Great Lakes to New England, then down the eastern seaboard to Washington, DC for a rally on Tax Day, April 15.

By the end of the tour, Tea Party Express would generate valuable coverage on Fox News and other cable outlets, and it would cement its position as one of the most influential organizations attached to the Tea Party movement--a conduit for energy, money, and support that can make or break candidates for federal office.Tea partiers rally.jpg Coincidentally, it is Sarah Palin's Tea Party group of choice. To date, the former governor has spoken at only three events organized by national Tea Party groups: two Tea Party Express rallies and the Nashville convention put on in February by a group called Tea Party Nation. While Palin charges everyone else for her speaking appearances, she does not charge Tea Party Express. After appearing for free at the group's rally in Searchlight, she would take the stage again in Boston, for another no-fee speech, at a big Tea Party Express gathering on April 14. 

Since the Searchlight rally, Tea Party Express has become one of the nation's most influential conservative groups. It is the only national Tea Party group to endorse political candidates in both primaries and general elections and spend on their behalf; consequently, it has accrued an enormous amount of clout.

The group has raised $2.3 million in 2010, mostly from small donors who gave under $200, thanks in large part to a robust online fundraising operation. At the time of the Searchlight rally, it had already shared in the electoral victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts. It had spent just under $350,000 to support Brown's candidacy, airing TV ads for him in the Bay State as he defeated Martha Coakley in the upset that deprived Democrats of their 60-seat majority in the Senate and complicated the passage of health care reform. Brown was not a Tea Party candidate, and he has distanced himself from Tea-Party-style conservatism; but in its efforts to stop Obama, the Tea Party movement rejoiced in his win. Before that, the group spent $115,000 on a special election in New York's 20th congressional district in 2009, which Republican Jim Tedisco would ultimately lose.

Tea Party Express has since taken on a whole new power, thanks in large part to the success of another candidate it backed, Nevada's Sharron Angle.

On April 15--having dropped $65,000 into Michigan to intimidate pro-life Democrat Bart Stupak into retirement after his compromise with the White House allowed health care to pass--Tea Party Express released its list of endorsed candidates at the National Press Club in downtown Washington, DC, hours before its big Tax Day rally. Most notable on that list was Angle, the little-known Senate candidate lagging in the rear of Nevada's multi-way Republican primary to challenge the vulnerable Harry Reid--arguably the nation's second-most-powerful Democrat--in this year's November midterm.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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