Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Fracture within GOP adds to tea party coffers

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

The tea party may be a shrinking, aging slice of the electorate. But you'd never know that from Sal Russo's operation.

Russo has been sending fundraising emails attacking President Barack Obama, "establishment" Republicans and, that favorite standby, the media. It helps his bottom line, if not the conservative cause.

The veteran Sacramento strategist and political entrepreneur is behind one of the longer lasting and more lucrative tea party political action committees, Tea Party Express, which operates from his office on Folsom Boulevard.

On Tuesday, he was at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he was overseeing the Tea Party Express-organized and promoted "tea party" response by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech. The GOP itself offered Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida as its official responder.

For its effort, the Tea Party Express sought to raise money:

"The mainstream media will be drooling over Obama's State of the Union (SOTU) speech, and we need your support to make sure that OUR voice is heard. Senator Rand Paul is giving the Tea Party response, but we have to let people know it is even happening." To help pay for the effort, donate "TODAY."

Although Republicans lost ground in November, Tea Party Express did well by measures that count.

Many candidates backed by Russo's operation won. And importantly, the Tea Party Express PAC reached the rarified air of eight figures by raising $10.1 million in the 2011-12 election cycle, up from $7.4 million in 2010, the year that tea partyers helped the GOP take control of the House.

If anything, business stands to improve now that President Barack Obama is back in the White House. Karl Rove, the face of "establishment" Republicans, provided more heavenly manna by creating Conservative Victory Project PAC, with the goal of promoting conservative candidates who can win, suggesting tea party candidates can't.

Russo answered last week with more email blasts: "Help us tell Establishment Republicans that they cannot push the Tea Party aside just because we make them feel uncomfortable when we oppose their tax-and-spend ways by making a donation TODAY!"

Ever the peacemaker, Fox commentator Sean Hannity brought Rove onto his show last week to sort it all out.

"This is not tea party versus establishment," Rove said, insisting his new PAC would support "the most conservative candidate who can win," not necessarily the "establishment" Republicans.

Then he derided tea party consultants and their "little emails":

"The groups that have most gone out with their little emails and their fundraising pitches are groups that are fundraising entities where most of the money gets sucked up into overhead and goes into the pocket of the person who owns the website or owns the political action committee."

Can we have a show of hands of anyone who thinks they know to whom Rove was referring. Anyone? Sal?

Russo said he and Rove "don't have a problem." They want the same thing, to win. But while they have won more than their share of campaigns over the decades, younger and more moderate Republicans have trouble seeing a happy future for their party, unless it changes course.

"The issues facing the Republican Party transcend Karl Rove and the tea party. It is a fundamental image and brand problem," said Sacramento consultant Adam Mendelsohn, who was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's communications director.

"The Republican Party," he added, "continues to fight to appease sectors of the electorate that are no longer the dominant forces. The tea party is not reflective of the politics of the majority of Republicans and, more importantly, the majority of potential Republicans."

California, where Democrats hold every statewide office and supermajorities in the Legislature, will provide a test ground for whether the GOP can right itself.

Former state Sen. Jim Brulte almost certainly will become the next state party chair when the GOP meets in Sacramento for its convention next month. At Brulte's invitation, Rove agreed to address the delegates. No doubt, Rove will try to help Brulte to turn the state party around by talking about his goal of electing the most conservative candidate who can win – although who that might be in California is not clear.

No names have surfaced of plausible, let alone serious, Republicans who could compete for statewide office. The candidates, whoever they might be, won't come from the tea party wing of the GOP.

Russo doubts the tea party will go on forever. At some point, it will become fully subsumed by the party itself, though he believes its shelf life will extend until the next presidential election in 2016.

Until then, Obama and the GOP establishment will provide fine fodder for little emails and fundraising pitches.