Sal Russo, the firepower behind the 'tea party'

By Matea Gold, Los Angeles Times

Sal Russo cut his first political ad in 1969 as a 23-year-old aide to then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, dispatched to California’s Salinas Valley to help a local apricot farmer win a state Assembly seat.

Since then, he has been a mainstay in the state’s conservative political circles, consulting for the likes of Gov. George Deukmejian and presidential hopeful Jack Kemp. In the 2008 presidential campaign, he crafted a series of pungent commercials questioning Barack Obama’s patriotism in the hopes of bolstering John McCain.

But the seasoned strategist is now aiming his fire directly at the GOP establishment. As a pivotal player in the “tea party” movement, Russo has helped drive its cause by raising millions of dollars and crafting caustic ads about its opponents. His background as a professional politico, however, has put him at odds with grass-roots leaders who question his motives.

There’s no question that Tea Party Express, the political action committee Russo runs out of his Sacramento-based firm, is the advertising muscle behind the tea party insurgency. In Delaware, the group spent $236,000 on television and radio commercials on behalf of Christine O’Donnell before last week’s Republican primary, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, helping her beat the expected winner, Rep. Michael N. Castle.

Earlier this year, the PAC dropped nearly $600,000 in Alaska on ads that boosted Joe Miller over Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and racked up $944,000 in advertising in Nevada backing Sharron Angle, who hopes to unseat Senate Majority LeaderHarry Reid.

As the only tea party group making significant advertising buys, Tea Party Express has become one of the most potent forces in the protest movement. The PAC raised $5.39 million through early August, all in single donations of $5,000 or less, by tapping into a database of supporters that now surpasses 400,000 people.

Much of the group’s success is because of Russo, whose political expertise gives the PAC media firepower in its efforts to elect fiscally conservative candidates.

“It’s great to blog and have signs and demonstrations, and we do all those things,” Russo, 63, said in an interview. “But we believe in changing through the political process.”

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