Which matters most to the 'tea party': win seats or reshape GOP?

The 'tea party' movement has driven out some GOP 'establishment' candidates. The big question is whether activists' picks can win in November, though that may not be what they care about most.

By , Staff writer

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    With the Capitol in the background, Tea Party protesters gather at Freedom Plaza in Washington, April 15.
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If Republican leadership felt a little unsettled about the "tea party" movement and how it would affect the GOP this election cycle, now it must be downright rattled. Tea party activists are proving ready and able to shake up state GOP conventions and Republican primary races, potentially endangering short-term Republican gains in Congress in favor of a wholesale reengineering of the party.

So far, the tea party movement has forced TARP-embracing Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to go "independent" in his Senate race, to try to survive an insurgent bid by tea party favorite Marco Rubio. In Utah, three-term Sen. Robert Bennett placed a distant third in the state convention this weekend, ending his Washington career. In moderate Maine, the GOP convention over the weekend incorporated into its platform tea party principles such as restoring 10th Amendment protections against federal overreach.

So far, the tea party's main effect has been to reject GOP establishment figures such as Senator Bennett and Governor Crist, a sign to many commentators that the Republican Party is being pulled too far to the right. Whether purge or insurrection, a grass-roots movement intent on picking off both moderate Republicans and Democrats is a new page in the history of populist political movements.

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IN PICTURES: Tea Parties

"This kind of insurgency is much more unusual than, say, [the Reagan revolution or the Gingrich revolution]," says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. "You have a sort of classic establishment view that you're about getting the seats [in Congress] and that's what grown-up leaders in Washington worry about [versus] this very intense amateur movement, but one that believes in something."

A rightward turn in the party may complicate the task of Senator Cornyn, who heads the committee to help Republican senators get elected. Some of his GOP colleagues, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina among them, have anointed "tea party" challengers to establishment Republicans. (Senator DeMint refused to endorse Bennett in Utah and picked Rubio in Florida. DeMint says he'd rather "stand with a committed minority than a big-tent majority," according to the Associated Press.)

Electability is Cornyn's top concern. "My goal is simply to build our numbers so we can provide checks and balances to single-party power here in Washington," Cornyn told the AP on Monday. "I think [DeMint] has a different goal, which is to try to move the Republican conference in a more conservative direction. If that were possible and we were able to win elections all around the country, I would be all for it, but I think as a pragmatic matter we've got to nominate Republicans who can get elected in their states."

Dozens of House and Senate seats are competitive in 2010, as Democrats face the task of running amid unpopular aspects of President Obama's record, especially the health-care reform law that Congress approved in March without a single Republican vote.

Democrats are hoping that Americans' rather dour view of the new health-care law will improve as people see how it affects their lives. But so far, polls do not show a marked change in public opinion on health reform, says Mr. Franklin, co-founder of Pollster.com. Such a turn may be a "forlorn hope" for Democrats, he adds.

Their other hope is that the tea party will damage Republican election prospects in November. There, Franklin sees reason for Democrats to smile, because polls show that less than 30 percent of Americans openly support the tea party movement.

"There is some truth to Democrats now saying, 'Just let them move far to the right and we'll let their own rhetoric catch up to them when it's a general-election electorate rather than a Republican primary,' " Franklin says.

There are signs that Democrats, too, are getting snagged in the anti-establishment furor, though not one directly of the tea party's making. Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia now "finds himself in the race of his life as West Virginia Democrats have soured on the veteran lawmaker" after his vote for health-care reform, writes The Speaker's Lobby blog on FoxNews.com.

But so far Republican officeholders are mostly the ones on the hot seat. Next up is the May 18 GOP primary in Kentucky, in which tea party candidate Rand Paul, son of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is vying with Trey Grayson, the Republican Party's pick. Such battles, some conservatives say, point to a GOP that is grappling with something deeper than voter anger – namely a desire to shore up what tea partyers see as an erosion in core constitutional principles, evident in Washington free-spending, huge national debt, and weakened states' rights.

"The great disentangling of conservatism has begun," writes blogger Erick Erickson of RedState.com. "It is not, as some like to say, a purge. … It is an insurrection and a necessary fight. For too long conservatives have given their money and votes to Republicans who, every election year, whip out a red cloth with the word 'judges' written on one side and 'abortion' written on the other and wave it in front of the grassroots. But the grassroots realize they've been had."

IN PICTURES: Tea Parties

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