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.

No one outside of Nevada had really heard of Angle at the time. She received just 5% support among Republicans polled by Mason-Dixon April 5-7, as former Nevada GOP chairwoman Sue Lowden led the pack with 45% as the clear frontrunner. Lowden's nearest challenger, Danny Tarkanian, took 27%.

Angle rose quickly in the polls, thanks to Tea Party Express, which has spent $411,000 on her behalf, after already spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to oppose Reid, before it even made its endorsement. The group aired TV ads telling self-professed Tea Party candidate Scott Ashjian, who had mounted a third-party bid despite facing felony charges, to "get lost," and it has run TV, radio, and direct mail in support of Angle, in its trademark simple, low-budget recipe for TV ads--the same recipe that worked so well in Massachusetts. Angle now leads Lowden by more than 10 percentage points in recent polls by Suffolk and Daily Kos/Research 2000, having jumped 17% in the multi-way race since TPE endorsed her. (See Angle's trajectory here at Pollster.com.)

As her candidacy gained momentum with TPE's help, bigger guns took notice. On May 19--just over a week after Angle had skyrocketed 20 percentage points over the course of a month--the influential Club for Growth, a DC-based free-market group that supports conservative candidates, endorsed her too. Since then, that group has spent over $470,000 airing TV ads and sending mail pieces in Nevada.

When Nevada Republicans go to the polls today, it is likely they will choose Angle as the Republican Party's candidate to unseat the vulnerable Reid, whose seat they have been drooling over for at least a year.

If they do, Angle will largely have Tea Party Express to thank, and the group will have proven that it is a serious contender in electoral politics--the contender, when money is concerned, to emerge from the Tea Party movement. Simply put, it will have made a Senate candidate. It will be a legitimate player, not just in the Tea Party, but in the broader political scene.

It's worth getting to know this group as it ascends on the national scene. And there's plenty to know.

For instance: its chairman, Mark Williams, does not like Muslims. At all.

Williams is a Sacramento-based talk radio host, having hosted shows in Sacramento and San Diego, and while he does not appear to be working as such at the moment, he maintains a website with a blog and radio clips.

In a post to that blog in May, Williams responded to news that the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative planed to build a community center and mosque near the former World Trade Center. His commentary was...well, it was a blanket indictment of Muslims, in the most graphic and explicit terms:

The animals of allah for whom any day is a great day for a massacre are drooling over the positive response that they are getting from New York City officials over a proposal to build a 13 story monument to the 9/11  Muslims who hijacked those 4 airliners.

The monument would consist of a Mosque for the worship of their monkey-god and a "cultural center" for to propagandize for the extermination of all things not approved by their cult.

He also posted this image, along with a photo of a genital-mutilation victim:

Mark Williams Muhammad - embed.jpg

The post was briefly password-protected--it could only be viewed by purchasers of Williams' book, "Taking Back America One Tea Party at a Time"--but it is currently viewable here.

Williams later posted a tongue-in-cheek "apology" to Hindus--not Muslims--for using the term "monkey god." (Hindus actually do worship a monkey god.) This comes after Williams posited last year that President Obama is an "Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug," defending his comments on CNN in an interview with Anderson Cooper. He has previously called Obama a "half-white racist" in an e-mail to leaders of the group. Williams has been on a crusade against Muslims, it seems, since 2004, when he wrote a series of columns in a Sacramento paper about trusting one's Muslim neighbors.

The Huffington Post published a remarkable chronicle of Williams and his fraught involvement with the Tea Party movement, including bitter e-mails from longtime political consultant Kelly Eustis, whose firm received tens of thousands of dollars in 2009 from the PAC that runs Tea Party Express, ripping into Williams after the TPE chairman walked off the set of an interview with MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan.

The rest of the Tea Party movement does not like Mark Williams, and, as a result, some Tea Party leaders refuse to associate with Tea Party Express. Amy Kremer, a former board member of Tea Party Patriots, was forced out of that group because she wanted to continue her relationship with Tea Party Express, which has paid her a few thousand dollars in consulting fees since 2009.

"We stand absolutely in opposition to that kind of behavior, and I think that the great majority of the Tea Party movement would too," said Mark Meckler, a national co-chairman of Tea Party Patriots, a broad coalition of affiliated local Tea Party groups that says it has 15 million activists under its umbrella. "We want people to understand that that's not us."

(Williams also claims, on his blog, to be a "founding Tea Party Patriot." But he has never had anything to do with that group. "He's probably doing that just to annoy us," Meckler said.)

Robin Stublen, who leads the Punta Gorda Tea Party in Florida, has called Mark Williams a "racist" and a "jerk" who gives the movement a bad name.

There is a sense among Tea Party organizers that racism and extremism aren't really an extant problem within the movement's ranks, but that it is rather something the movement's liberal opponents seek to manufacture and highlight. (More than one Tea Party leader has suggested to me that the more egregious signs seen at rallies are actually liberal plants. Organizers of individual rallies have warned, on occasion, that participants should ferret out any such apostasy.)

Mark Williams didn't found Tea Party Express, but he has been there from the start, selected more or less to serve as its face, on-stage emcee, and spokesman in TV interviews.

Tea Party Express is a project (the main project) of the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, which was formed by the Sacramento-based Republican consulting firm Russo Marsh + Associates, the firm of longtime GOP strategist Sal Russo.

It has taken criticism from other corners of the Tea Party movement for its GOP-consulting-firm origins, and for the financial benefit Russo Marsh reaps from it. Of the $4.4 million Tea Party Express has raised since it was formed, over over $360,000 of it appear to have gone to Russo Marsh in the form of consulting fees and advertising commissions, based on Federal Election Commission reports. (Russo Marsh has handled over $1.2 million in ad buys for TPE, much of it TV and radio space, on which purchases Russo Marsh takes a 15% commission.) TPE also has paid Russo Marsh somewhere between $300,000 and $415,000 for e-mail blasts and newslettering--apart from the e-mail blast/database services it purchases from Paramount Communications. Russo receives a nominal consulting fee, and one of his partners in the firm, Joseph Wierzbicki, has received over $50,000 in fundraising commissions--a by-no-means unreasonable fee in the world of PAC fundraising.

The central question surrounding the group, and Williams, then, is: why is he still chairman? Why does the group not simply dump him? And why does Sarah Palin choose to associate with Tea Party Express, given its problematic chairman?

As for the latter question, it may have something to do with this: Our Country Deserves Better, having been founded to support the McCain ticket in 2008 (Russo was dissatisfied with the way the campaign was going, before his former employee, Steve Schmidt, was brought on to run it; Russo described McCain's situation as "too many states [with] too many problems," with messaging that was too soft on Obama), ran a national TV ad campaign thanking Palin for running as VP--for taking on that responsibility and "leaving the comforts of Wasilla," as Russo told me, after '08 the campaign was over. Before the Searchlight rally, Russo believes it was TPE who reached out to the former governor.

Palin, to be fair, may not know much about Williams. Her political organization, SarahPAC--notorious for not returning press inquiries--did not return one about Williams, his views, and the former governor's association with the group.

As for the why Williams is still involved, the answer has to do with the history of the group and with the man in charge of it.

Russo, the only one capable of firing Williams, doesn't see a reason to.

"We've known Mark for a long time," Russo said in a recent phone interview, Williams having been active in conservative politics in California for many years and Russo having been so for many more (he began working for Ronald Reagan in 1966 at the age of 19; more recently, he worked on the Gray Davis recall effort).

Tea Party Express began, Russo said, shortly after CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli's fateful rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, in which he suggested dumping bad mortgages into Lake Michigan and spoke the magic words "tea party," setting many wheels in motion. The group Free Republic wanted to hold a protest rally in Sacramento, and they called Russo for help. Williams got a call, too, and he emceed the rally.

When Russo formed Tea Party Express, he needed a face, someone to work the rallies and the crowd ("He's a great emcee," Russo told me.) And like that, Williams became chairman of Tea Party Express.

So it has remained, with Williams receiving a few thousand dollars in consulting fees from the group, a few times a year. He's not involved in the day-to-day operations, Russo says; the main work of Tea Party Express is done by only two people in the group's California office, which happens to be the same office as Russo Marsh + Associates (the PAC pays Russo's consulting firm for meeting costs and office expenses). Rather, Williams "comes and goes," joining the group for tours and making TV appearances.

Russo, the only one who really could fire Williams, doesn't see a need to. Or rather, he doesn't see it as his place.

"We tolerate people having completely different views all the time," Russo said. There are "people that inject God and social issues into their speeches, and we ask them not to do that." Russo cites a state chairman who opposes the Iraq war.

Mark Williams, chairman, Tea Party Express

As far as Russo is concerned, what Mark Williams--or anyone else--says on his own time is his business. When the people associated with TPE are appearing at bus tour rallies and talking about the group's core principles--limited government, limited spending, an agenda held by most of the Tea Party movement--then they're speaking for the group. "If you say anything else, you're not speaking for the Tea Party Express," Russo says. He's responsible for the people he employs, he says, but for someone like Williams--the face of the group, who, regardless, is not a salaried employee--Tea Party Express doesn't agree with everything they say. "We just agree on what we're talking about."

Russo knows there are birthers at his rallies, which he finds "kind of silly," but it's not his place to take a stand on issues unrelated to the Tea Party Express platform; as for everything else besides those principles, Russo says, "I'm willing to let the marketplace of ideas sort things out."

I ask Russo if a line should be drawn at derogatory statements about Muslims.

He could get Rush Limbaugh, he says, but then he'd spend all his time answering for Limbaugh's opinions. He could get "Walter Cronkite back from the dead," but someone would complain about the legendary newsman. "It never stops," Russo says. "There's no place to draw a line."

And Williams was most likely talking about jihadists, Russo says--not Muslims writ large.

I e-mailed Williams and asked if that was the case--if he had aimed those blog posts at all of Islam, whether he had just been talking about jihadists or perhaps those planning the mosque near Ground Zero, and whether he sees his anti-Muslim pontificating as a threat to Tea Party Express, since so many others don't agree with him.

Here was Williams' response (excerpted with ellipses), which came in a reply to my e-mail:

Does Islam allow for a Muslim to NOT be a Jihadist?  Maybe you shoot a email [sic] to one of the Imams who speaks for the faith in Mecca and inquire?They would be the expert on that question.  All I can do is provide you with questions that I ask and answer in "Taking Back America One Tea Party at a Time" in my chapter on Islam (there are individual chapters devoted to some of the most serious threats faced by those who love Liberty)...

Show me how a temple to terrorism at Ground Zero advances "understanding" and maybe while you are at it explain why up until now this mosque has been proceeding in all but secret.  Tell me why the 100-million dollars burning a hole in the Imam's pocket for "understanding" is not being used by Islam to track down and kill the terrorists in their midst or compensate its victims.  Tell me why Islam is not standing to stop idiotic efforts to create martyrs with "peace" flotillas and bombs strapped to retarded kids and sending them sauntering up to IDF.

Find me the throngs of Imams marching for Civil Rights for all in the face of angry, organized mobs fighting against those Rights as we saw ministers do in Selma and Birmingham.  Show me the public outrage when yet another act of unspeakable horror in the name of their god is committed... or will you simply find yet another mass demonstration of semi-evolved simian rage directed at Jews, Americans and all non-Muslims in support of the act of horror sparked by the scent of blood?

Ever see the broken and burned bodies of Muslims hanging from freeway bridges here or dragged through the streets before cheering throngs like they were Marti Gras floats?...

What was your question about Tea Parties again?  They take up around 9 weeks of my year, I'm a little busy the other 43 to poll Tea Partiers for their opinions but I would suggest to you that since the Tea Party Movement is a Human Rights Movement (by virtue of being based on the greatest expression of Human Rights ever devised by our mortal hand - the United States Constitution) that you may surmise that the average Tea Partier is not likely to embrace savage acts against anybody as a standard to be held or respected.

It does not surprise me that standing for Human Rights "harms" the Tea Party Movement.  Standing for limited government, lower taxation, for Constitutional process and our Republic and for less government intrusion all "harm" the Tea Parties too.  This is what the bottom of a slippery slope looks like, when you've run out of slope and are looking in the maw of the abyss.  The evil that brought us here is fighting to finish the job.

So he really doesn't like Muslims, and the case was solved. Those are his reasons.

(Williams and I have something in common, I discovered. He mentioned in his e-mail that he is also a former cub scout and that he is "ordained in the Universal Life Church." I was never into cub scouts, but I was ordained as a minister of the Universal Life Church when I was in 9th grade. It was fairly easy to do online. It made for reasonably good conversation starters. I haven't looked back into what the ULC stands for since then, but I believe I can technically marry people.)

Tea Party Express remains one of the more effective groups in the Tea Party movement, given the reluctance of every other national Tea Party Organization to endorse candidates and raise money. To critics of the fees his firm receives, Sal Russo says he "never did this for the money." Some reports of Tea Party Express's payments to his firm have exaggerated the sums, and Russo says the majority of the money his firm makes is from commission on media buys. 15%-20% is the standard commission rate for media purchasing; Russo's firm is on the low end.

Some, Russo included, see other groups' refusal to endorse as malaise, or weakness, or futility, or something in between. ("They're the only ones that are actually doing something," Stublen, the Florida tea party organizer, said.)

Other national groups, like Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Nation, don't think it's their role-- that endorsements should happen at the local level only.

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.