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GOP candidates in the Tea Party crosshairs

The Tea Party movement is taking aim at Republican incumbents, including Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Sen. Olympia Snow of Maine, and Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Will it succeed in unseating them?

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Snowe, who won her 2006 race with an astonishing 74 percent of the vote, is the most liberal of the quintet. She was a crucial vote for President Obama’s stimulus program in 2009 and supported a health-reform bill in committee. Just recently she voted against the budget pushed by Paul Ryan, expressing concern about its plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program. It can’t hurt Snowe to cast herself as a protector of the medical program for the elderly in a state with the highest median age. Nor does it hurt that Maine’s Tea Party governor, Paul LePage, has endorsed her. It’s personal; her first, late husband helped the dirt-poor, French-speaking teenager get into college, and he has never forgotten.

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So far Snowe has two challengers hoping to capitalize on conservative frustration: Scott D’Amboise, a small businessman aligned with the Tea Party, and Andrew Ian Dodge, who heads Maine Tea Party Patriots. Neither is getting much traction. “I don’t think either one of them is electable,” says Pete Harring, founder of “I honestly don’t see anybody in the state strong enough to overthrow Olympia Snowe.” Russo praised Snowe for backing a balanced-budget amendment and repeal of Obama’s health law. The Tea Party Express is “open to her seeing the light,” he says.

Corker, who has negotiated with Democrats over financial reform and auto bailouts, is a top target of founder Erick Erickson. “He pushes the Senate GOP left and toward capitulation. He is contemptuous of conservatives,” Erickson wrote last month. Yet Corker fits squarely in his state’s bipartisan tradition of centrists, and so far no challenger has surfaced.

The same is true in Massachusetts, where Brown won a stunning upset last year for Kennedy’s old seat. “I find it hard to believe you could do much better than Scott Brown in Massachusetts,” says Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks. “Maybe you could prove me wrong. That’s the unknown. What is known is that we could have the ground game in Utah and Indiana to be successful.”

That’s pragmatism talking. There’s been no donning of hair shirts over 2010, even from Russo, whose group backed the losing Angle-O’Donnell-Miller trifecta (he says the candidates weren’t “as bad as some people said they were”). But will these groups go to the mat next year for conservative challengers who are inexperienced or erratic, who display sub-par fundraising, communication, or organizational skills, in hard-to-win liberal or moderate states? Probably not. For the moment, at least, it seems the maturing Tea Party movement has raised the bar.

Jill Lawrence is an award-winning journalist who has covered every presidential election since 1988. Most recently, she was a senior correspondent and columnist for Her other positions have included national political correspondent for USA Today and national political writer at The Associated Press.

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