A national coalition of conservative activists plans to endorse Republican Assemblyman Chuck DeVore in the U.S. Senate race, spurning two more popular candidates in favor of the underdog bidding to take on Democrat Barbara Boxer.
The Tea Party Express, whose backing helped propel Scott Brown in his successful effort to claim the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts, will announce the endorsement Saturday at a Nevada rally headlined by conservative stalwarts such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, who is better known as Joe the Plumber.
"Of the three candidates running, Chuck DeVore embodies the conservative ideals we are fighting for: basic fiscal sanity and limited government," said Levi Russell, spokesman for the Tea Party Express. "He is the obvious choice."
Although this is the group's first endorsement in the 2010 primary election cycle, Russell concedes it is unlikely to have as great an effect as the Brown nod, which brought about $400,000 and intense volunteer support to the Massachusetts race.
That contest was a special election targeting a seat that held great symbolism. The California race will be competing for money and volunteers with many contests across the nation.
"We are trying to put the spotlight on him," Russell said. On Thursday the group will announce how much money it plans to give DeVore, whose fundraising has lagged.
The California race is already attracting national attention as Republicans ponder the possibility of knocking off three-term incumbent Boxer. Polls have shown former Rep. Tom Campbell and former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina as the front-runners in the GOP primary, with DeVore trailing far behind.
The most conservative and least well-known of the three candidates, DeVore has long counted on such grass-roots support to help carve an improbable path to victory, and has visited "tea party" groups across the state in addition to traditional GOP organizations.
The endorsement "sends a signal to primary voters that I'm not the business-as-usual, establishment candidate," said the Orange County assemblyman, adding that he would also be able to use the group's extensive e-mail list.
But even DeVore acknowledges that the "tea party" movement is decentralized. The Tea Party Express is viewed with disdain by some rival "tea partiers," who argue it is too closely aligned with the Republican Party.
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former Republican political operative, said the group's imprimatur could still be a "huge asset" in the primary.
"If DeVore is able to start with a strong and committed base of grass-roots activists, then it's a significant advantage for him," Schnur said.
Schnur noted that the endorsement comes the same week as former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon announced his support for Campbell, despite Campbell's liberal stance on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced her backing of Fiorina.
All these moves, Schnur noted, are aimed at neutralizing the candidates' weaknesses.
"All three of those endorsements serve the unique needs of each respective candidate," he said.
Simon, a conservative, gives Campbell cover among GOP primary voters concerned about his liberal social policies. "Condi Rice gives Fiorina foreign policy and national security credentials, and the 'tea party' endorsement provides the motivator that DeVore needs."
The Tea Party Express endorsement is also likely to come with the most hoopla. It will be announced at the "Showdown in Searchlight," a rally in the Nevada hometown of embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Thousands are expected to descend on the tiny historic mining town, kicking off a 42-city, 20-day "Just Vote Them Out!" bus tour that will end in Washington on April 15.
DeVore said he plans to ask Palin for Palin's endorsement on Saturday.