How Missouri Senate primary fits into tea party strategy for Election 2012

Three Republican candidates – all with tea party ties – are vying in Tuesday's Missouri primary for the chance to take on Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in the fall. GOP takeover of the Senate is a top tea party aim.

Erik M. Lunsford/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
A poll worker helps voters with touchscreen voting machines Tuesday at a public library on in Kirkwood, Mo.

The battle over which party will control the US Senate next year intensifies Tuesday in Missouri, as three Republican candidates vie for the chance to take on struggling blue-dog Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill in the general election. 

The Missouri primary comes as the national tea party movement, after showing its strength last week in elections in Georgia and Texas, zeroes in on the race as part of an emerging strategy to ensure that any potential Republican majority in the Senate takes hardline stands on debt, deficits, taxes, and spending – and would act to gut some of President Obama’s biggest achievements. 

Republicans are expected to retain their majority in the House. Mr. Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney are locked in a bruising fight for the White House. Democrats, meanwhile, have a four-seat advantage in the Senate. Toss-up races in Nebraska, Wisconsin, Virginia, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Massachusetts may all become critical to which party holds the Senate. But Tuesday’s Missouri primary holds particular import for Republicans – and its strong-arming tea party wing. 

“It’s safe to say that Missouri is a must-win for the Republicans if they’re going to take the Senate back,” says Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, in Houston. “If they don’t win the Missouri Senate seat, they’ll have to run the table in the other states.”

As for the tea party, he adds, “it’s like in poker: They’re going all in, doubling down, pushing through, not trying to tentatively make gradual changes, but trying to enact wholescale reform.”

Three Republicans – millionaire businessman John Brunner, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, and current US Rep. Todd Akin, a conservative Christian – all have a good shot, polls suggest, at unseating Senator McCaskill in November, partly due to the state’s sharp turn to the right under Obama and to a mini-scandal involving McCaskill's charging taxpayers for rides she took in a plane she co-owns. (McCaskill, a proponent of more oversight into congressional expenditures, paid the money back, not because any laws were broken but because of, a spokeswoman said, “the optics of the bigger picture.”)

While Missouri has one of the nation's largest conglomerations of tea party groups, Tuesday’s primary differs significantly from last week’s GOP primary in Texas, where the tea party favorite, Ted Cruz, beat the establishment candidate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, by a shocking 14-point margin to become the likely successor to retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

In Missouri, tea party support is spread across all three candidates, with Ms. Steelman receiving an endorsement from Sarah Palin, Mr. Akin receiving one from US Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Mr. Brunner being endorsed by the tea-party-friendly FreedomWorks group in Washington. 

Polls show Brunner and Steelman as most likely to fare best against McCaskill. But all three have campaigned on limiting Washington’s power and reach. 

McCaskill, who is trying to distance herself from Obama and other Democratic leaders (in part by skipping the National Democratic Convention in Charlotte, N.C.), is likely to try to define the narrative as the Missouri race heats up: She is already fighting back by appealing to Missourians’ sense of moderation against the possibility of a radicalized Senate heavily influenced by the tea party.

“They’re all the same,” McCaskill tells Politico. “They all want to get out of the UN, they’re all for privatizing Medicare, they’re all for privatizing Social Security. They all want the federal government out of the student loan business.”

National Democrats have also picked up on the surging tea party and the prospect that the movement may wield greater influence in the US Senate. 

“The bigger issue there is that [Senate minority leader] Mitch McConnell is now going to have, potentially, a much more tea-party-oriented caucus and we have all seen the damage that has done,” Sen. Patty Murray, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairwoman, tells ABC News. “I think it’s more of their problem than ours.” Senator Murray declined to put any odds on the Democrats’ chance of holding onto the Senate.

In the thick of the battle is former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who has the chance in Missouri to go five-for-five with her Senate primary picks. Most of the Palin-approved candidates have three key traits, according to Politico’s David Catanese: “a robust grassroots operation, an anti-establishment instinct, and the aura of an underdog.”

So far, Ms. Palin has backed four successful candidates for Senate: Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Sen. Orrin Hatch in Utah, Deb Fischer in Nebraska, and, most recently, Mr. Cruz in last week’s Texas primary. Her endorsements all came within weeks, even days, of the primary elections. A tea party sounding board, Palin has proved to be adept at gauging broader sentiments, if not always the nuances, of tea party adherents. 

The tea party, which rose to prominence after massive street protests in 2009 and which helped give Republicans a decisive victory in the 2010 midterm elections, had seemed to fade as Mitt Romney, an establishment Republican from the Northeast, marched through the GOP presidential primaries. The fact that a candidate aligned with the tea party did not prevail in the GOP presidential race, some analysts suggested, pointed to a public backlash to the tea party’s hardline tactics on the national debt limit and other economic policies.

But as “principled” conservative candidates began to knock off veteran politicians such as GOP Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana and forced other moderates to steer sharply to the right (see Senator Hatch, in Utah), it became clear that tea party organizers had not gone away. Instead, they were fomenting a grass-roots strategy to consolidate power in the US Senate to become a political foil for whomever wins the presidency.

“These candidates would not just be thorns in a President Obama’s side, but they’ll be thorns in Romney’s side, if he’s elected,” says Professor Jones at Rice. “The larger [the tea party caucus] gets, the more they’re able to be veto players over certain policies, and their ability to dictate or influence the agenda only grows with their size.”

The effect on national politics and policy would be quick and drastic should the tea party plan work, some political scientists say. “They’re not going to fiddle around,” Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol, co-author of “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” told the Monitor earlier this year.

What kinds of changes could Americans see? As McCaskill predicts, Medicare and Social Security privatization would become plausible, and the gutting of Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, would likely begin immediately. 

Speaking on the Missouri stump for Steelman on Monday, Palin suggested another first order of business should Republicans take the Senate: “Sarah will fight for a constitutional amendment that forces Congress to balance the budget.”

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