Tea Party Express tour to leave today from W.Pa.

| Thursday, April 26, 2012, 8:14 p.m.

The founders of Tea Party Express consider Western Pennsylvania the logical area from which to start a national tour today, with a goal of influencing fall elections.

The California-based political action committee hopes to persuade voters to elect presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney as president and conservative majorities in the Senate and House, said Sal Russo, the group's chief strategist.

The group chose to depart from North Boundary Park in Cranberry on its first tour of the year because it considers Pennsylvania "the key battleground state" this fall, Russo said, likely to surpass Ohio and Florida in importance. The Restoring the American Dream bus tour will stop in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri before concluding May 7 in Texas.

Political experts caution against dismissing the Tea Party as a movement losing the influence it wielded two years ago.

Though it is not a political party and lacks the ideological coherence and organizational structure to coalesce into a faction of the Republican Party, its supporters migrated into the fabric of American politics after initially holding protests to draw attention to their convictions -- and they still help shape debates.

"Movements transform their roles, and that is what the Tea Party is doing," said Eldon Eisenach, a professor emeritus from Tulsa University, who notes that groups working to elect candidates and influence policy historically wax and wane.

"Not only did Tea Party-inspired enthusiasm raise the tide of many Republican candidates across the country in 2010, it turned that election into a referendum on President Obama's policies," especially regarding national debt and the scope and size of government, said Curt Nichols, a political scientist at Baylor University in Texas and expert on the impact of U.S. political movements.

"Politics often resembles an argument about what the argument is about," Nichols said. "And if the argument in November is defined more so by the Tea Party movement than, say, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Republicans probably will win the argument."

In Pennsylvania, Republicans are banking on a competitive race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Bob Casey Jr. of Scranton now that Tom Smith, an Armstrong County coal entrepreneur who billed himself as a true conservative, won the party's primary.

The Tea Party Express backs Republican Keith Rothfus, an Edgeworth attorney, for the reconfigured 12th District congressional seat, hoping he can beat Rep. Mark Critz of Johnstown. Critz won the Democratic Party's nomination on Tuesday in an edgy race against Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless, who narrowly defeated Rothfus in 2010.

The Tea Party traces its origin to a rant against the Obama administration by CNBC's Rick Santelli. Standing on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Feb. 19, 2009, Santelli asked viewers if they wanted to "subsidize" others' mortgages. He suggested he would organize a tea party to dump "some derivative securities into Lake Michigan."

The video went viral, giving birth to the movement.

"The early myth was that they were hapless yokels being manipulated behind the scenes by Koch brother monsters, but that was leftist paranoia," said Eisenach, citing a narrative liberal news media sometimes put forth about people identifying with the movement.

The Koch family of industrialists controls Koch Industries, the country's second-largest privately owned company, which is said to be worth $100 billion. Brothers David H. Koch and Charles G. Koch have put money toward conservative policy groups.

Nichols defines the Tea Party as "a grass-roots social movement at this point in its short history."

Its first accomplishment was to help elect Republicans Chris Christie in New Jersey and Bob McDonnell in Virginia as governors in 2009, a year after both states voted heavily for Democrats. At full strength in 2010, the Tea Party helped Republicans win 63 House seats, six gubernatorial races and more than 700 seats in state legislatures.

Yet it could not influence the election of a conservative majority in the Senate. The general electorate never warmed to Senate nominees from Delaware, Colorado and Nevada, costing Republicans the majority.

Since September, when the Tea Party sponsored a debate with CNN in Tampa, the group has tried to get the GOP presidential candidates -- once a 10-person field -- to talk about their plans to revive the economy, Russo said.

The group's polling of its supporters has produced varying results, but Romney is the leading choice, Russo said.

"The fact that no other viable candidate existed cannot be attributed to lack of Tea Party influence," Nichols said. "Wait and see who Romney picks as his vice presidential candidate to see their influence."

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