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Who’s picking up the tab for the tea party?

The tea party movement may have genuine grassroots. But just beneath the surface are professional fund-raisers, foundations, and political action committees – some of which have been around for years – pushing a conservative-libertarian agenda.

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The money, Mayer and others report, comes through such conservative organizations as Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks.

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Another major source of tea party funding is the Tea Party Express, which poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the successful GOP primary senate campaigns of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Alaska.

Based in Sacramento, Calif., the Tea Party Express is run by Sal Russo, a Republican fund raiser and public relations guru who began his career working for Ronald Reagan. Russo is also the chief strategist for “Our Country Deserves Better,” a PAC formed to defeat Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

“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,” reports the Los Angeles Times. “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.... 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.”

Millions from the Tea Party Express

Our Country Deserves Better, which launched the first Tea Party Express bus tour last year, raised and spent just over $1 million in the 2008 campaign year. So far in 2010, it’s raised and spent more than $5 million. Large chunks of that went to the GOP primary campaigns of tea party favorites Christine O’Donnell ($237,000) and Joe Miller (nearly $600,000).

The problem for those trying to ferret out where the money comes from – and for Obama and Democrats as they seek to toughen campaign finance reporting in the wake of the Citizens United court decision – is that it’s getting harder to do so.

“Federal campaign spending by groups other than candidates and parties this election cycle has far outpaced similar spending from the last midterm election and could rival the 2008 presidential campaign,” the New York Times reports. “But with recent decisions by the Supreme Court and the Federal Elections Commission, it has become harder to know whose dollars they are.”

This chart shows that the percentage of such groups involved in “electioneering communications” and reporting the names of their donors has dropped from 98 percent in 2004 to 32 percent this year.

The tea party may have sturdy, spreading grassroots. But there’s plenty of special-interest money behind it as well.

In Pictures: Tea Parties

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