Tea Party Express bus

While pundits and pollsters have been pointing to dissatisfaction over the debt-ceiling debate as evidence America is growing disenfranchised with the tea party, some of the group’s leaders are touting Wisconsin’s recall election this week as evidence that the movement is far from dead and that the grass roots of America are still steeped in tea-party ideals.

Tuesday’s recall election win for Gov. Scott Walker and four Republican state senators has been praised as a victory for the principles of smaller, fiscally responsible government, values that define the tea party movement, even if all the people who voted for Walker don’t call themselves “tea partiers.”

“The tea party is made up of layers,” explained Sal Russo, chief political strategist of the Tea Party Express, in the wake of the election. “There’s the visible layer made up of Americans who get out with their signs and go to rallies in Washington. Then there are the fervent tea party supporters, who make up about 25 percent of Americans, although they don’t get out to rallies or protests. Finally, there’s the 30 percent who aren’t sure what the tea party movement is, might be hesitant to say they belong, but connect with us on the issues. They vote the same way the tea party does. This layer is much broader-based.”

When you consider the voting impact of the final group – Americans who may eschew the “tea party” label but who still vote the same values – Russo says, rumors of the tea party’s demise are grossly exaggerated.

During the Wisconsin state budget negotiations last spring, Gov. Scott Walker proposed legislation to close the gap on a projected $3-billion budget shortfall. Walker’s proposal eliminated the ability of taxpayer-funded public employee unions to handle collective bargaining for certain aspects of worker contracts.

In an effort to stop the bill from being voted on, many Democrat state senators fled the state to neighboring Illinois where they holed up in hotels and resorts.

Meanwhile, Republican state senators remained and voted for the Walker measure. As a result, opponents began a recall attempt to remove six Republican state senators in a special election held Aug. 9th. Four senators survived the recall, thus retaining the Republican majority. Another attempt to recall two Democrat state senators will be voted on next Tuesday, Aug. 16.

Recognizing a loss in Wisconsin would indicate a fading of the small-government and fiscal responsibility fervor that has fueled the tea party, Russo’s Tea Party Express sprang into action.

Known for its coast-to-coast tours in Constitution-wrapped buses, the Tea Party Express, however, is more than a patriotic, rolling stage show. What goes on beneath the surface is the real story, Russo says.

Of the several organizations that emerged following CNBC’s Rick Santelli’s famous on-air rant in February 2009 in which he called for a “tea party” to stop out-of-control federal spending, the Tea Party Express, or TPX, has been doing boots-on-the-ground work to effect change in the voting booth.

During the 2010 campaign cycle, TPX endorsed hundreds of candidates for U.S. Senate and House, including taking on so-called RINOs, or “Republicans in name only,” in key races.

TPX also did four national bus tours that covered thousands of miles in key states, carrying the message: “You are not alone! Americans across the country are rallying with you to take our country back!”

Fast forward to Wisconsin in 2011: “The Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama” several weeks ago brought political organizers led by strategist Joe Wierzbicki into the state capitol of Madison to set up a “war room” where they raised money, developed media strategies, coordinated with statewide tea parties and connected with Republican office holders. The campaign’s efforts were capped in the final days before the recall election with the Tea Party Express’ four-day bus tour that took a coalition of representatives from national tea-party organizations to nine stops in eight relevant districts where state senators were under recall challenge.

The Tea Party Express rallied in the Wisconsin cities of Hudson, LaCrosse, Kenosha, Thiensville, Fond du Lac, New London, Merrill, Rhinelander and DePere.

“The overall purpose of the tour was to help change the debate,” Wierzbicki told WND. “We are here to let Wisconsinites who are concerned about the economy and taxpayer protection know that they are not alone and they are not ‘wrong evil hobbit terrorists’ as some would have them believe. Recalls are for politicians who don’t do their jobs – like the Democratic senators who fled the state in an effort to stop the Gov. Scott Walker’s reforms bill from being voted on.”

“A grassroots ground game is integrated with the bus tours,” Russo added. “The tours are just the visible tip of the tea-party iceberg. The biggest part of the movement is what’s under the surface. Our job is to activate that big base that you don’t see – that’s under the sea – and keep them motivated. And at the same time, keep that noisy top [of the iceberg] happy and directly engaged.

“What we were trying to do with the rallies was to get the voters involved,” Russo continued. “And we’ve been successful. For example, in our first national tour, we would ask how many people had been involved in a political campaign. Just a few hands would rise up. Now when we ask, most of the hands go up. People had to see that there were millions of others just like them. And the rallies did that.”

Andrea Shea King traveled with the Tea Party Express during its tour through Wisconsin. She hosts a conservative talk radio program each weeknight on Blog Talk Radio, writes the weekly “Surfin’ Safari” column at WND and posts at her blogsite Radio Patriot.

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