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The Tea Party Express has a primary emphasis

at 02:19 PM ET, 09/21/2011

As evidenced by its co-sponsorship of last week’s GOP presidential debate in Florida, the Tea Party Express is emerging as a major voice in today’s Republican Party.


Congressional candidate and former Harry Reid foe Sharron Angle, right, sings during a rally by Tea Party supporters, Friday, April 15, 2011, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) (Julie Jacobson - AP)
But is the group a team player when it comes to electing Republicans? And should it be?

A look at the group’s 2010 independent expenditures (IEs) – the bulk of the money it spent on individual races – shows a far greater amount went to picking the right Republican nominee than actually getting the candidate elected in the general election. In the end, the majority of the $2.7 million the group spent on IEs was in primaries.

Establishment Republicans have been privately grumbling that the movement is using its money to foment intraparty discord rather than actually getting members of Congress elected, leaving the primary survivors to flounder once they’ve made their point.

“It should raise questions for Tea Party Express donors to learn that the vast majority of their money actually went to high-priced professional political consultants and primary attacks on Republicans, instead of defeating Democrats and stopping the Obama agenda last November,” said a GOP strategist, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the sensitive situation.

According to data compiled by CQ Moneyline, the Tea Party Express spent $237,000 in independent expenditures on getting Christine O’Donnell past then-Rep. Mike Castle in the 2010 Delaware GOP Senate primary. After that, it spent just $16,000 on O’Donnell in the general election, which she lost badly. That’s a nearly 15-to-1 difference.

The gap wasn’t quite as stark in Nevada, but was still significant. The group spent $925,000 on IEs on behalf of Sharron Angle in a three-way primary, only to spend $187,000 on her in the general election, which was another loss.

In Alaska, the group spent $590,000 getting Joe Miller the nomination over Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), only to spend $77,000 on Miller thereafter. Murkowski became the first senator in half a century to win a write-in bid.

Those were the three biggest races for the Tea Party Express in the 2010 election. In all three, it spent much more in the primary than in the general election, and in all three its candidate went on to defeat after a high-profile primary win.

GOP consultant Sal Russo, who founded the Tea Party Express, acknowledged that the group is able to impact primaries more significantly because, he said, there was less outside group spending than in the general election, where more groups tend to get involved.

“Certainly we wanted to make a statement that it was unacceptable for Republicans to nominate ‘get-along, go-along’ big spenders, and thus we took after Murkowski and Castle,” Russo said. “Angle was an important symbol for us because she had a career of saying no to big-government ideas promoted by Republicans and Democrats alike. We felt that message had to be out there in a strong way.”

Russo said that a larger portion of the group’s efforts in the general election was spent on a broader effort to turn out tea party supporters nationwide — an effort that he thinks was very beneficial to the GOP.

“In the general, we have lots of competition for dollars, and we cannot focus attention as effectively as in the primaries,” Russo said. “We focused our (fall tour) on political involvement and turnout more than on the IEs we did in primaries.”

(In fairness, the Tea Party Express also expended plenty of resources getting Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) elected in a January 2010 special election, and it also spent plenty of IE money opposing Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) throughout the election cycle. But again, most of the IE money went to primaries.)

The disparity, if it continues, will be a sore spot for a Republican Party that enjoys harnessing the enthusiasm of the tea party, but would prefer it focus less on electing ultra-conservative candidates in the primaries – several of whom many in the GOP saw as unelectable, and felt a sense of vindication once they lost.

We have yet to see high-profile members of the GOP speaking out publicly against groups like the Tea Party Express, but privately many in the establishment wing feel that the group’s efforts hurt the party’s chances of winning important seats in the races mentioned above.

The tea party, of course, makes no claims on being part of the GOP or being beholden to it in any way, though it does rely on conservatives Republicans for donations and support.

“We are not satisfied with electing Republicans who want to grow the size and intrusiveness of the federal government; the Republican establishment will take anyone who claims to be a Republican,” Russo said. “So there is going to be a natural clash.”

The GOP has also grumbled for years that the Club for Growth – a fiscally-conservative outside group – focuses too much on primaries in which a less-electable candidate might emerge. But the Club has also instituted a robust IE effort on behalf of those candidates once they win their primaries.

In 2010, the Club for Growth spent about a half million dollars on getting Angle through the primary, but then spent another $330,000 on the general election.

It spent $310,000 on Miller and $1 million on Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck — but all of it after the tea party candidates won their primaries. It also contribued to the cause of winning general elections in Senate races in Wisconsin and Florida, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in each, along with $2.7 million in Pennsylvania to help former Club head Pat Toomey get elected.

Besides Angle, the only other money the Club spent on a high-profile primary in 2010 was on unseating former senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah) in a state that Republicans would be hard-pressed to lose in the general election. It also spent money against Florida Gov. Charlie Crist before he switched from Republican to independent, and ran IEs in a 2009 special election in upstate New York in support of the conservative third-party candidate who was running against a moderate-to-liberal Republican.

While the Club for Growth may still rankle the GOP from time to time — and it’s already picking sides in some 2012 primaries — it has still done plenty to help the GOP win in the general election once the primary battles have been fought.

Right now, Republicans don’t see the Tea Party Express putting forth a similar effort.

And with several major tea party-versus-establishment primaries also taking shape, that could be a major issue again in 2012.

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