They are co-hosting the debate, the question is whether the Tea Party Express is an authentic "tea party" group:
Mark your calendars for Labor Day week 2011. That's when CNN and the Tea Party Express will co-host a primary debate among the 2012 Republican presidential candidates in Tampa, site of the 2012 Republican National Convention. According to a news release, the debate will focus on multiple topics, but the emphasis will be "the issues that matter most to Tea Party Express: the economy and government spending." [...]
“The Tea Party Express is a fascinating, diverse, grassroots force that already has drastically changed the country’s political landscape,” said Sam Feist, CNN political director and vice president of Washington-based programming. “Undecided voters turn to CNN to educate themselves during election cycles, so it is a natural fit for CNN to provide a platform for the diverse perspectives within the Republican Party, including those of the Tea Party movement.”
The Tea Party Express did play a significant role in some GOP Senate primaries--Nevada, Alaska, and Delaware--but it's not clear if they're just in it to make a buck. From the New York Times:
Unlike many of the newly energized outsiders who have embraced Tea Party ideals, [Tea Party Express chief Sal] Russo, 63, is a longtime Republican operative who got his start as an aide to Ronald Reagan and later raised money and managed media strategy for a string of other politicians, including former Gov. George E. Pataki of New York. His history and spending practices have prompted some former employees and other Tea Party activists to question whether he is committed to, or merely exploiting, their cause.
Mr. Russo’s group, based in California, is now the single biggest independent supporter of Tea Party candidates, raising more than $5.2 million in donations since January 2009, according to federal records. But at least $3 million of that total has since been paid to Mr. Russo’s political consulting firm or to one controlled by his wife, according to federal records.
While most of that money passed through the firms to cover advertising and other expenses, that kind of self-dealing raises red flags about possible lax oversight and excessive fees for the firms, campaign finance experts said.
“They are the classic top-down organization run by G.O.P. consultants, and it is the antithesis of what the Tea Party movement is about,” said Mark Meckler, a national spokesman for Tea Party Patriots, a coalition of grass-roots organizations that does not endorse or contribute to candidates.