Take a Ride on the Tea Party Express

Another quirk of the Tea Party Express, which seems to go hand in hand with Russo's laissez faire attitude about individual opinions, is that Tea Party Express is also one of the most transparent Tea Party groups in the nation. Because it endorses candidates and conducts political activity, it is formed as a PAC (political action committee); it files with the Federal Election Commission; its finances are in plain view. One can go to the FEC's website and see exactly how Tea Party Express spends its money--regardless of whether one agrees with it. Which, in essence, exposes Tea Party Express to that same marketplace of ideas in a way other groups aren't.

Tea Party Nation is a for-profit corporation; Tea Party Patriots is a 501(c)4 under IRS code; so is FreedomWorks, which, although not a Tea Party group per se, certainly has a role in the movement. Expenses are not displayed in public. Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks both have PACs, but relatively little of their business has typically been conducted on that side of things.

Tea Party Express, like it or not, picks its targets with a strategist's eye. The group has endorsed Chuck DeVore in the U.S. Senate race in California and J.D. Hayworth, John McCain's primary opponent, in Arizona. Neither has great chances of winning, and Russo knows it. So Tea Party Express didn't get involved; they had made a decision, long before endorsing Angle, to go after Reid. They made that strategic decision and pursued it.

The group has found a niche: spend tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars on e-mail newsletters (which, one would think, shouldn't be so expensive...) to generate support among Tea Partiers. The group's e-mail list, Russo estimates, has around 1 million names, but it is forwarded by Tea Partiers to fellow activists, he says. Raise money online in small numbers--and tell donors that the money will go right to the candidate. (TPE asks for money to help Scott Brown and to help Sharron Angle--but the checks are written to TPE for independent spending.) Air cheap TV ads, produced in house. Take a bus tour across the country and collect names and support.

When Tea Party Express rolls into town, it contacts local Tea Party organizers and gets them to cooperate and help with its events. An organizer in Omaha said his experience with TPE was "great" and their organization was "professional." With the help of locals, Tea Party Express has been able to draw thousands of activists to its rallies and generate a sizable share of media coverage devoted to Tea Party events since the first rallies in early 2009.

That's the method. So far, it has worked.

Tea Party Express has become too significant and successful a group to go away anytime soon. The views and comments of its chairman have, as of yet, failed to deter most rank-and-file Tea Partiers from showing up to its events--despite the fact that Mark Williams has alienated the group from other leaders and groups of note at the national level of the movement.

Perhaps the marketplace of ideas will sort that out.

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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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