WASHINGTON (AP) — Tea party activists and the Republican establishment are quickly joining forces for the fall elections as fresh cash and energy flow to the upstarts.
Separate tea party groups still squabble over roles for Republican insiders within the movement, but the conservative activists and GOP stalwarts have reached a truce for the common goal of defeating Democrats, heeding calls for unity from Republicans including Sarah Palin.
One group — the nonprofit Tea Party Patriots — on Tuesday announced a $1 million donation from an anonymous donor, a shot of cash to be spent before the election on voter mobilization efforts. The Tea Party Express is preparing to assist specific candidates, building on its targeted advertising campaigns during primary races in Delaware, Alaska and Nevada.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party and GOP-allied outside groups are already helping some tea party-backed candidates, most notably Sharron Angle who is seeking to unseat Senate Majority leader Harry Reid in Nevada.
"Ultimately, that’s what we all hope happens, as citizens," said Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler. "The political parties support the candidates that the people support, not the other way around."
It’s hardly unusual for opposing forces to coalesce after primaries to confront the opposition party. But the vigor with which tea party activists went after longtime Republican office holders — such as Sen. Robert Bennett in Utah and Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware — had raised the prospects of a rift that would be difficult to heal.
But Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, was offering plenty of salve Tuesday.
"I think the tea party’s been a very constructive movement in American politics," he said. "People are tired of everything thrown at them from Washington, and they are not going to take it anymore. We have embraced their enthusiasm and their energy in the Republican primaries and now we’re strongly behind all the Republican nominees, including a number of candidates who are very actively supported by the tea party movement."
Start with the movement’s financial backing. The Tea Party Express, a group formed by a longtime California GOP consultant, has raised more than $5 million and financed about $2 million in advertising to help candidates.
The organization was an offshoot of a political action committee created to support John McCain’s Republican presidential run in 2008, and its chief strategist is Sal Russo, a Sacramento Republican operative who has worked for nearly 50 years helping run party campaigns, including those of Govs. George Deukmejian of California and George Pataki of New York.
The Tea Party Express made a huge splash in Alaska, where it poured nearly $600,000 into the race in the waning weeks to support Joe Miller over Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a member of the Senate GOP leadership who had the party’s backing. Miller won and now Murkowski is running a write-in campaign in hopes of retaining her seat. With the party now backing Miller, Murkowski had to resign her Senate leadership post.
The Tea Party Express then jostled the party again, swooping into Delaware and spending about $240,000 to help Christine O’Donnell defeat Castle in the GOP Senate primary.
Looking ahead, Russo said in an interview, "We’re going to favor the candidates we supported in the primary."
"But we’re not limited to that. We’ll try to help make a difference."
Tea party candidates have also received a boost from FreedomWorks, a conservative group led by former House Republican leader Richard Armey. Its political action committee, formed last April, has raised only a fraction of what the Tea Party Express has amassed in its PAC. But Armey’s group has its own influential network, and it has weighed in to support tea party candidates that did not get Tea Party Express support, such as Rand Paul in Kentucky.
FreedomWorks President and CEO Matt Kibbe said his group is looking beyond the Republican Party targets in the House and Senate. "When you have results like Delaware, there is an opportunity to think outside the box," he said.
The growing pains of the movement are still evident. Meckler, of the Tea Party Patriots, is dismissive of Russo’s and Armey’s groups.
"They try to portray themselves as some sort of grass-roots movement, but they are a classic example of what those on the left would call astroturf," Meckler said of the Tea Party Express. "They are fake, they’re not from the grassroots. These are longtime Republican political activists with their own agenda."
FreedomWorks, he added, "is an organization with a figurehead who is former elected official — a relatively top down organization, D.C.-based. It’s just not fundamentally grassroots."
Kibbe acknowledged that such apprehension exists but said it’s only with a small minority of tea party activists.
"As a Washington organization with some history of being involved in politics, there is an upside and downside," he said. "We have to prove to people that we’ve stayed true to principle. You have to add value."
Even as Meckler touted his Tea Party Patriots as representative of the grass-roots movement, he also announced his group had received the $1 million donation from a single contributor.
The contribution came with conditions, Meckler said, including one that requires the donor’s name to remain secret despite the tea party movement’s stated commitment to openness.
Other conditions, he said, included making sure all the money is granted to recipients by Oct. 4, and is spent by the Nov. 2 midterm elections. The cash will be distributed as grants to Tea Party Patriots affiliates to be used for get-out-the vote costs. Recipients are barred from spending the money on any ads or handouts that bear the name of specific candidates.
"The goal is to leverage the efforts that are already on the ground," Meckler said.
The Tea Party Express’ money is limited and must be reported to the Federal Election Commission. The Tea Party Express has paid Russo’s consulting firm, Russo March & Associates, and one run by his wife, King Media Group, more than $500,000, according to FEC reports filed though Aug. 4.
Russo said he’s not making money off the venture.
He said the cost of the ads he has produced is "less than the phone bills that some people spend producing a spot."
California-based Democratic consultant Bill Carrick calls Russo "a very smart guy."
"I always saw him as a real conservative, but kind of a mainstream conservative," Carrick said. "That may be part of his cultural conflict with the complainers in the tea party."