Sal Russo rocked back in his chair, put his scuffed shoes up on his desk and prepared to watch Karl Rove analyze the latest political shocker — a win by insurgent Christine O'Donnell against the establishment Republican candidate in Delaware.
Russo, a consultant whose roots in Sacramento stretch back to Gov. Ronald Reagan's days, took a direct hand in O'Donnell's victory Tuesday. He is the brains behind the Tea Party Express, one of several campaign operations that lays claim to representing the tea party movement.
It's not the most sophisticated, nor most well-funded. But fueled by clever, constant and hyperbolic fundraising appeals, often allied with the queen of the movement, Sarah Palin, Russo is on a winning streak that is horrifying some Republican insiders, and delighting many Democrats.
Russo's most stunning success involves O'Donnell, a candidate who had gained minor attention in years past for her strict views about chastity and, yes, masturbation. Bill Maher had her as a conservative foil on his "Politically Incorrect" cable TV show.
"She is just crazy," Maher said of her on election night, on CNN's "Larry King Live."
The GOP establishment sided with Rep. Mike Castle, a moderate Republican who had served nine terms in Congress. He was a lock to fill the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden.
Until, that is, Russo stepped in. Operating from his office complex near the Folsom Boulevard Flea Market, Russo cranked up his e-mail machine, soliciting money and support from his list of 400,000 followers.
By election day, Russo and his staff of a half-dozen had sent no fewer than 23 e-mails, raising money, urging people to make calls on behalf of O'Donnell, and, importantly, giving Palin a forum.
"Big News!" a Sept. 9 e-mail blast declared. "Governor Sarah Palin has come to the aid of conservatives and tea party activists — and has announced today on the Sean Hannity radio show that she is endorsing Christine O'Donnell for U.S. Senate."
Matching what O'Donnell had raised, Russo slapped together some low-budget ads and spent about $250,000 on TV time, touting O'Donnell's stand against the federal health care law, deficit spending and the stimulus, and portraying Castle as, horrors, a RINO, or Republican in name only.
"To be successful in politics, you have to be in concert with the zeitgeist of the times, and the zeitgeist is opposition to big government and higher taxes," Russo said.
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