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 Leader Harry 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."
Sacramento attorney Steve Merksamer, who was Russo's boss when both worked for Deukmejian in the governor's office, said the group had an edge because of Russo.
"A lot of these tea partyers are extremely frustrated Americans who are new to politics," he said. "He's a talented political operative who has been doing this a long time."
But that's exactly what rankles others in the movement, who view Russo and his colleagues as professional GOP consultants exploiting the grass roots.
"These are folks who have done what so many feared would be done: They tapped into the movement to raise money for their own interests," said Mark Meckler, co-founder and national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, an online network of local groups.
"We have millions of people, and they've got a bus with six or eight people and a fundraising machine," Meckler said. "The second they feel the tea party is not the hot issue is the moment they'll switch to something else. That's old money, top-down politics, the kind of politics that the tea party is against."
Fueling suspicion is the fact that the PAC paid $516,000 to one of Russo's two firms between January 2009 and early August of this year, according to campaign finance reports. Some of the money went to cover travel and vendor costs, but a large share was for consulting and advertising commission fees. Another $340,000 was paid to 13 people, including Russo, for consulting and staff wages.
Russo said he's charging the group a fraction of what he would another client. "All that money goes to the cost of running the office," he said. "There's been zero profit."
And he rejects the notion that he hails from the inner Republican Party ranks, noting that he worked for Reagan when the party's power players lined up against his candidacy.
"I'm grateful to have him on our team," said Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer, who pointed to the group's large database as evidence of its grass-roots credentials. "You look at some of these other grass-roots groups and we're the ones actively engaging and playing a role."
Tea Party Express began as a PAC called Our Country Deserves Better that Russo and former state Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian formed in 2008, frustrated that McCain wasn't drawing a strong enough contrast with Obama. The ads put out by the group, which Russo said aired in five swing states, were unsparing. One, called "Obama's Patriotism Problem," included a clip of the then-senator's controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright shouting, "Not God bless America — God damn America." Another, called "Wrong Values," noted that a top official in Hamas, which the U.S. deems a terrorist organization, backed Obama's election.
When the campaign was over, the group aired an ad thanking former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin for her advocacy of "common-sense conservative values." She has since participated in the group's bus tours.
Russo said he had planned to shut down the Our Country Deserves Better PAC after the election, but donors urged him to continue his efforts. After CNBC's Rick Santelli made his famous "tea party" remarks on the air in February 2009, spurring the protest movement, Russo said he decided to rebrand the PAC.
"When Santelli did his rant, we said, 'This is what we're doing, so let's call it that,' " he said.
It appears that Russo's firm also viewed the movement as an opportunity. Politico reported in April that as the insurgency took off, Russo associate Joe Wierzbicki proposed in an internal memo that the PAC launch a nationwide tea party bus tour because it would "position us as a growing force/leading force as the 2010 elections come into focus." Russo said Wierzbicki was merely codifying what the PAC was already doing.
Aside from the bus tours, which have drawn audiences of thousands, Tea Party Express has put most of its focus into advertising. Russo said he's producing each commercial for about $3,000, a fraction of the $30,000 that many political ads cost. "Our spots don't have high production values, but they have clarity," he said.
The ads in Delaware sought to tie Castle to the president, asserting that the moderate Republican "is so liberal he voted for Barack Obama's agenda nearly 60% of the time." A photo of Castle was stamped with big red letters reading "LIBERAL." One spot in Alaska compared the Murkowski family to English royalty during the Revolutionary War.
"He's been accused of going over the top occasionally, but you can look at it and see exactly what he's trying to do," Democratic media strategist Bill Carrick said of Russo. "He doesn't do wonky, substantive ads by any stretch. They are more designed to hit somebody than appeal to their intellect."
Tea Party Express is now actively raising money to run more ads before the November midterm elections. Russo said the group had not finalized its plans, but would probably air more spots on behalf of O'Donnell and Miller, among others.
As for the tea party's long-term prospects, "Once we have fiscal responsibility in Washington, the need for it will eventually diminish," Russo said. "I don't think people relish being involved in politics. They want the politicians to get it right. So we've got to put a 2-by-4 to the back of their heads until they get it."