Can the GOP and 'tea party' activists get along?

They've clashed in some places. But in Arkansas the old guard GOP and the tea party are united, so far, in a bid to oust Sen. Blanche Lincoln.

By , Correspondent

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    Former US Rep. Richard Armey (R) of Texas (c.) spoke against proposed healthcare reform outside Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s Little Rock, Ark., office last month.
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Dani Martin makes light of her Facebook group “Bye Bye Blanche.”

“It’s something we’re doing to poke fun at her,” Ms. Martin, a “tea party” activist, says of Arkansas’s senior senator, Democrat Blanche Lincoln. “Blanche likes to use her femininity in defense of what she does. We’re feminine conservative girls; she doesn’t represent us.”

With Senator Lincoln up for reelection in November – and besieged on many sides for, among other things, her hesitant support for national healthcare reform – the contest here will test not only the clout of the energetic but unfocused tea party movement but also how effectively the Republican establishment taps it.

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So far, the desire to oust Lincoln appears to be uniting tea party and Republican forces here. If that pattern holds, Arkansas could become the altar for a pivotal political marriage that refashions conservatism in America.

But it may also prove to be the exception rather than the rule. Elsewhere, tea party activists and the Republican old guard have clashed. In Florida, for one, tea partyers recently helped oust the Republican Party state chairman, and the two sides back different GOP candidates for the open US Senate seat there.

Moreover, though the two enjoy jolly relations in Arkansas now, anything could happen by the November election, and state conservatives have a lot of sorting out to do if they are to unseat Lincoln.

No fewer than nine candidates have so far thrown their hats into the Republican ring. Two, businessman Tom Cox, and University of Arkansas official Randy Alexander, have tea party credentials, but tea partyers say members are still weighing their choices. The National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington, for its part, has not endorsed a candidate.

But in a state where the Republican Party lacks strong leadership, the energy is with the tea partyers. That’s as clear to conservative activist John Allison as the nose on his face.

“We are aggressively pursuing Blanche Lincoln to get her out of office, and that is our common goal” with the GOP, says the tea party member from rural Arkansas. “The most effective thing is to move into the Republican Party instead of splitting a conservative vote. We need to get involved with them and guide them back.”

The Arkansas Republican Party is taking care to extend its hand to tea party activists. Doyle Webb, state GOP chairman, notes that one Republican county chairman is also a tea party chair.

“In our leadership and private meetings,” he says in a phone interview, “we have all agreed to be encouragers and accepting. We want the party to bring in those differences.... The tea party brings a more activist wing into an older GOP, which is in turn exciting and activating the lumbering elephant.”

Martin, with “Bye Bye Blanche,” is Exhibit A. Though a regular voter over the years, Martin never got involved in party politics until last fall, when she started attending healthcare town-hall meetings. By December, she was standing in front of 500 people at a tea party holiday bash in a Little Rock hotel, announcing the Facebook group.

The grass-roots buzz at that event was reminiscent of the early Obama-for-president movement. Pamphlets about how to run for office dotted a table in the room. Volunteers circulated with sign-in sheets to gather contact information. Donations were collected at the door.

Only a few of the local GOP establishment attended, but from out of town came Richard Armey, former GOP House majority leader, whose group, Freedomworks, leads the national tea party charge.

“I wish Blanche Lincoln could see this crowd,” Mr. Armey said, to cheers. “This is organized in Arkansas by citizens of Arkansas for the citizens of Arkansas.”

Most of the GOP candidates aspiring for Lincoln’s seat mingled at the event. So did Tim Griffin, a former US attorney and Bush White House official who is running for Congress against Rep. Vic Snyder (D).

Tea partyers share many of the same conservative issues – about job creation, the national debt, personal liberties – as Republicans, he says, and that can only help the GOP.

“The unity of that energy is where the power will lie in 2010,” Mr. Griffin says. “A lot of what you have seen with third-party groups – like the tea party – these folks are conservative and they are fed up with people in Washington who are not working for them, but against them.”

The election will tell whether a majority of Arkansas voters see Lincoln that way. For now, the moderate Democrat is considered at risk of losing her seat.

“Lincoln is very vulnerable,” says Jennifer Duffy, a senior analyst at The Cook Political Report. “The left isn’t happy with her voting record because it isn’t progressive enough. The right doesn’t like it because she often votes with the Democratic majority after suggesting that she might not.”

Though Arkansas voters went for Republican John McCain over Mr. Obama by 20 percentage points in 2008, they are not one-party loyalists. Democrats hold the statehouse and governorship. The congressional delegation consists of three Democrats and one Republican.

Many Arkansas Democrats now call themselves independents. That’s where Republicans see a way to defeat Lincoln.

“Arkansas’s electorate is changing,” says Kirsten Fedewa, a GOP consultant in Washington. “There are more people in Arkansas who view themselves as independents than as Democrats or Republicans.... This bloc of voters is very important this year.”

Democrats say, not so fast.

The influence of the tea partyers “in 2010 remains to be seen,” says Gabe Holmstrom, senior adviser to the Democratic Party of Arkansas.

Lincoln, in campaign mode in Arkansas during the congressional recess, stumped at numerous locales, including the Downtown Kiwanis Club of Little Rock. She worked the room, hugging and greeting friends. She defended her vote in favor of healthcare reform and focused on farming, an issue germane to her role as chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

Still, Lincoln knows that she is under fire on many fronts, especially regarding national spending.

“As an original cofounder of the Blue Dog Coalition in the House of Representatives, Senator Lincoln has established a strong record as a fiscal conservative throughout her career in Congress,” says her campaign spokeswoman, Katie Laning Niebaum. “Her campaign will fight for every vote in every region of the state.”

No matter who wins the GOP primary for Senate in Arkansas in May, the tea party group will stay focused on principles, not party, predicts Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and 2008 GOP presidential hopeful.

“The value of the tea party is that they are in this for the right reason,” says Mr. Huckabee. “They aren’t trying to be an ambassador or get on a board or commission. They are motivated to be involved in politics because they want their country back.... It’s America at its best.”

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The 'tea party' movement that burst upon the scene last year is destined to play a big role in this year's midterm elections. Whether it will help the Republican Party or hurt it by pulling the GOP far to the right is the big question.

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