Who is behind the Tea Party organization pushing for a GOP upset in Delaware?

Jon Ward Contributor
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The Tea Party is going for another Republican scalp, this time in Delaware. But wait. Is it, in fact, the Tea Party?

Christine O’Donnell has become the latest virtually unknown candidate to zoom out of seemingly nowhere – just like in Massachusetts, Nevada, Utah and most recently Alaska – and now threatens to upend the more established GOP candidate, Rep. Mike Castle, in Delaware’s Republican Senate primary.

With each successive upset, the national spotlight on Tea Party insurgencies has grown more intense. And the hotter the national focus, the simpler the narrative has become: the Tea Party has backed an upstart candidate. Voila.

The problem is, the group that has spent money to produce the upsets — $560,000 in Alaska with plans for $250,000 in Delaware before next Tuesday’s primary — is only one of a handful of national groups that have claimed the Tea Party mantle.

In addition, the Tea Party Express is also maligned by the most prominent other national group, the Tea Party Patriots, as being a group of political operatives out to line their own pockets with the donations of unknowing conservative grassroots activists.

So who is the Tea Party Express? In short, it is a Sacramento-based national political action committee run by two veteran political operatives from California but staffed largely by political novices. Here’s a look at the key people involved in running the organization:

Sal Russo
: The 63-year old Russo is the most senior principal at TPE, along with his 37-year old protégé, Joe Wierzbicki. Both have spent most of their careers in California politics, advising Republican candidates and spearheading political and public relations campaigns. Russo founded Russo, Marsh and Rogers, a GOP public relations firm in Sacramento, and Wierzbicki also works for the organization. But Russo gives true meaning to the term “veteran political operative.” He got his start in politics when he volunteered for Ronald Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign. He briefly came to Washington when Reagan was elected president, but “didn’t like what happened to his own head” in the nation’s capital, said Mark Williams, a radio talk show host who was with TPE until recently.

But Russo worked on Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign. He has also been involved with national elections in New York, U.S. presidential campaigns, and even PR campaigns in foreign countries. Russo helped coordinate a media campaign in the Ukraine to push for a presidential referendum in 2004. In the California political world, “there’s a sense that, ‘can you believe that Sal Russo has kind of reinvented himself as the Tea Party Express guy?’” said one GOP political operative with years of experience in the state. “There’s that sense of, ‘You know who runs the Tea Party Express now? Russo. Wow. Russo?’ He’s been around in California politics for so long…He’s a California Republican.”

Russo likes to keep a low profile. His picture on the TPE website is at the very bottom, below figures who are much more peripheral in the organization. But he’s well-known to even the most high-profile Republican leaders. “He’s a hoss,” said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who said he’s known Russo for 40 years.

Joe Wierzbicki: If Russo provides the institutional gravitas and political know how for TPE, Wierzbicki, his right-hand man, provides the energy and leadership. Wierzbicki is not nearly as well known in California politics but has been the main organizer behind the TPE bus tours, which are reputed to have raised significant amounts of money for the group. When TPE sends out fundraising e-mails, Wierzbicki is most often the one whose name is at the top. “Today I celebrate my 37th birthday,” Wierzbicki wrote Wednesday, “and as I do so, myself and the team at the Tea Party Express face one of our greatest challenges to date. The political establishment are battling us tooth-and-nail to defeat our conservative constitutionalist candidate for U.S. Senate (Christine O’Donnell) and are trying to ram through their candidate – liberal RINO Mike Castle.”

Wierzbicki is also at the center, along with Russo, of several groups that overlap and intersect with the TPE, such as Moving America Forward and King Media Group. TPE itself was at its inception in 2008 an anti-Obama advocacy, fundraising and advertising group known as Our Country Deserves Better. Each of these groups has paid large amounts of money back to Russo, Marsh and Rogers over the last year, leading to charges from members of the Tea Party Patriots and from former employees that Russo and Wierzbicki formed TPE simply to make money (Politico reported in April that $1.9 million out of roughly $4 million in expenditures by TPE and King Media went to Russo, Marsh and Rogers). But Wierzbicki said Wednesday he has “long since grown tired of those who make attacks based on ego or jealousy or resentment.” Russo added: “There’s no profit.”

Amy Kremer: She is the chairman of the Tea Party Express, a 39-year old former Delta Airlines flight attendant from Georgia who says she wasn’t involved in politics until the 2008 campaign. She was an original founder of the Atlanta Tea Party and was a national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. After leaving to work with the Tea Party Express, she was sued by the Tea Party Patriots over access to the group’s websites and social media accounts.

Tiffiny Ruegner: Ruegner, the field coordinator at Tea Party Express, is a single mother in California who has been involved in efforts like California’s recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and the passage of Proposition 8.

Ryan Gill: He is the organization’s social media guru, a California based operative whose work “on behalf of conservatives makes frequent use of live events, social media, and press coverage, and his work on behalf of our troops has taken him everywhere from the Reagan Library in California to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” according to his online biography on the TPE website.

Levi Russell: He is the 29-year old spokesman for the Tea Party Express, who manages the organization’s daily communications and has “a background in promoting movement-oriented projects and campaigns,” according to his online biography. He’s a graduate of the University of Alaska. Russell is also listed as marketing director of Frontline Strategies and Media, which has received $127,858 in expenditures from TPE since 2009, according to OpenSecrets.org.

There’s no doubt that the TPE is now a major political force on a national scale. They are one of the largest spenders this election cycle in terms of independent expenditures, having spent $2.7 million on so-called Tea Party challengers in Republican primaries, according to Congressional Quarterly. They’ve also built up an e-mail list of more than 500,000, according to former employee Kelly Eustis. They spent roughly $350,000 on national cable networks to help Republican Scott Brown win in the Massachusetts special election, and have helped guide other long shots — like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Joe Miller in Alaska — to victory during GOP primaries over more establishment Republican candidates.

From that perspective, they are one of the strongest pieces of evidence for Democrats who argue that there is a strong AstroTurf element to the Tea Party, which is partly an attempt to discredit the movement, though it has been largely ineffective.

But there’s also no question that TPE has been able to tap into, and work with, real Tea Party activists on the ground. In Delaware, O’Donnell is unquestionably the favored candidate of the conservative grassroots. Even groups such as the 9/12 Delaware Patriots, a growing organization with close to 3,000 members that does not endorse candidates, has all but officially thrown its weight behind the insurgent candidate.

“She’s been to our meetings ever since, even before she announced she was going to run for office. She started coming out to our meetings to hear what people had to say,” said Russ Murphy, executive director of the 9/12 Delaware Patriots. “One can’t help but notice … that when you go to a lot of these events there are a lot 9/12 people at them.”

Activists with the Delaware Tea Party have also promoted and participated in TPE events for O’Donnell, a 41-year old Republican activist, commentator and public relations specialist turned politician.

And TPE has been impressively effective, despite being run by what Kremer said is a “ragtag team.”

“I’m just a mom. I mean, I’ve never been politically active,” said Kremer, who recently took over as chairman of Tea Party Express after conservative radio talk show host Mark Williams left the post because of controversy around racially charged comments.

Kremer said having skilled operatives, like Russo and Wierzbicki, is in the interest of the grassroots who want to have an impact this election year.

“I feel like we’re blessed to have Joe Wierzbicki and Sal Russo because it is their knowledge, their expertise, they understand the political world. And it’s because of their knowledge [that] we’re able to put together these successful campaigns and engage in the election process the way that we are,” Kremer said. “I certainly couldn’t do this. I’ve never done anything like this before. I feel like it is a blessing.”

Yet local leaders such as Murphy, a Vietnam veteran, were unaware of accusations from others in the Tea Party movement that TPE is taking financial advantage of grassroots energy.

“I don’t know whether that’s a fact or not,” Murphy said. “My concern is for what the 9/12 Delaware Patriots are standing for.”

But Mark Meckler, a national spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots, which does not endorse candidates, said TPE is run by “old-school, top-down, political operatives who are using the Tea Party movement for their own purposes.”

“Every grassroots Tea Partier has an obligation to defend the movement. When people do things that are racist, sleazy, immoral and offensive in the name of the movement, Tea Party Patriots will always stand against those things,” Meckler wrote in an e-mail. “Tea Party Express has done those things, and we have called them out for that.”

Eustis, a 22-year political wunderkind who left TPE in October 2009, said that during his time at the organization, employees would regularly run up bar tabs of more than $1,000 a week and charge it to Russo, Marsh or King Media, which would then bill TPE for the expense under a concocted fee.

Russo said this was a trumped up charge.

“Do the young guys go out and have meetings sometimes at night and have a cocktail? Yes, that’s true. But they don’t spend thousands of dollars,” Russo said. “When people are working at night and staying up all night, you’ve got to feed them and you got to treat people decently.”