With its signature bus tours and reputation for using large injections of cash to help slay establishment Republican giants during the primary season, the Tea Party Express has become a ubiquitous symbol of the larger Tea Party movement. But in the final crucial weeks before Election Day, the group has markedly slowed its spending.
A U.S. News analysis of Federal Election Commission data shows that Our Country Deserves Better PAC—the group's political action committee—has steadily decreased its spending since August. This change has been driven in large part by a sharp decrease in independent expenditures, communications like advertisements or mailings supporting or opposing candidates, without coordinating with those candidates. Since reaching a high of over $500,000 spent in August, the PAC's independent expenditures have dropped off significantly, to $274,000 in September and again to $84,000 this month, as of October 27.
Altogether, Our Country Deserves Better PAC has spent $2.4 million on independent expenditures this election cycle. Groups with similar spending totals, such as the American Action Network, a conservative organization that has spent $2.5 million, and the AFL-CIO, which has spent $2.1 million via Working America, its most active affiliated PAC in political communication spending, have ramped up their spending this month, making the Tea Party Express' downward trend all the more striking.
Amy Kremer, the chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, says that the group is still committed to promoting candidates in the run-up to Election Day. "We are still involved in those races, we are doing everything we can to support those candidates." She adds that the PAC's unorthodox spending pattern reflects its focus on this year's primaries to defeat more moderate Republicans. "Obviously, we want to send conservatives to Washington, and we believe that the way to do that is to get involved in the primaries and elect true conservatives."
Indeed, 90 percent of the $1.9 million the Tea Party Express has spent on independent expenditures in regular elections (as opposed to special elections) this cycle was spent during the primaries. The lion's share of that spending went toward three ultimately successful Senate primary candidates: Sharron Angle in Nevada in June, Joe Miller in Alaska in August, and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware in September.
Over that stretch, the group's cash reserves have steadily declined, going from $245,000 in the bank on August 4 to $120,000 on October 13, the most recent available data. Tea Party Express's Kremer says that, while radio and TV ads can be effective, the group is instead devoting its resources now to a two-week, 19-state pre-election bus tour from Nevada to New Hampshire. "[Our donors] wanted another bus tour, that's what they expected of us, so we're out here with the people," she explains.
Democratic media consultant Tom King sees self-awareness in the Tea Party Express' spending strategy. The group knew it would have a much stronger influence in the primaries, he says, after which they would either be crowded out by bigger spenders, like American Crossroads, or decried as too extreme. "I think they recognize their limitations, to be quite honest. I think they're more sophisticated than what people give them credit for," says King. "They backed off when they seemed to be a liability."
Since Our Country Deserves Better's frenzied primary spending, its candidates have experienced mixed success. Angle maintains a slight lead over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in recent polls, while Rasmussen Reports puts O'Donnell 11 points behind Democrat Chris Coons in Delaware, and a Hays Research poll released Thursday shows that Miller has slipped 11 points behind Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is defending her seat as an independent. For all of the group's influence, then, it remains to be seen whether the momentum from an early Tea Party push will be enough to carry its candidates to victory.