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For GOP, Tea Party Offers New Energy And New Woes

Marco Rubio has surged past the GOP-endorsed Gov. Charlie Crist to seize control of the race for a Senate seat in Florida.
Robert Giroux
Getty Images
Marco Rubio has surged past the GOP-endorsed Gov. Charlie Crist to seize control of the race for a Senate seat in Florida.

Republicans feel the wind at their backs this political season.

The GOP is confident it will profit from the health care debate, whether or not the Democratic Congress passes the bill. And the number of Democrats who are opting not to run for re-election in the fall is steadily increasing.

But there is so much energy among the grass-roots conservative base of the Republican Party — and it's going in so many different directions at once — that it's proving to be a challenge for the GOP to manage.

Candidates Shift To The Right

One sign of that is the slew of contested Republican primaries for Senate seats. In many of them, Republican rivals are each claiming to be "the" Tea Party candidate.

The Republican establishment is trying to manage the anti-tax, anti-spend, anti-Washington sentiment that's behind the decentralized movement known as the Tea Party, but it's not easy. One incumbent Republican, Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, is in danger of losing his seat to a Tea Party-backed challenger.

Moderate former Republican Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut tells voters he carries a tea bag in his pocket, right next to his copy of the Constitution.

And even the former Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, is facing a strong primary challenge from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth. McCain has been moving to the right to fend off Hayworth's challenge. And so have other previously moderate Republicans.

Running for the Senate in California, former Hewlett-Packard CEO and moderate Republican Carly Fiorina tells voters she has "Sarah Palin values." Moderate former Republican Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut tells voters he carries a tea bag in his pocket, right next to his copy of the Constitution.

The Scott Brown Model, And A Potential Weakness

All these candidates know that even though the Tea Party groups are not an organized party, they are a powerful force. Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the Cook Political Report, points to the Massachusetts Senate race, where Republican Scott Brown pulled off the mother of all upsets.

Duffy says of Brown: "Tea Party activists quickly adopted him, frankly without knowing much about him. And while there's not a huge Tea Party movement in Massachusetts, nationally, they actually started pouring money into his race, and in the last 10 days of the contest, that campaign was raising, on the Internet, about a million dollars a day, unsolicited."

And that, Duffy adds, is something she's never seen before.

The Democrat in charge of beating all these candidates, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, argues optimistically that the Tea Party energy coursing through the Republican primaries this year will come at a price.

"I look at their primaries as costing them a lot of money," Menendez said, "shedding a lot of blood. Moving them ideologically off the center of the political universe — which is important as it relates to the general election. And therefore, overall, debilitating."

Insurgent Taps Into Tea Party's Strength

But that's not the case in Florida, where Marco Rubio is challenging Gov. Charlie Christ in the GOP senate primary. Rubio has become the Tea Party candidate. And he was endorsed early on by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.

When DeMint introduced Rubio at last month's CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) convention in Washington, he said: "Last May I was in a meeting with Republican senators who were giddy after endorsing Gov. Crist in Florida. At that time, Gov. Crist led little-known Marco Rubio by over 30 points. Unfortunately, they were putting polls before principles."

As everyone now knows, Rubio has surged past Crist in the polls, and is favored to win both the primary and the general election. And DeMint, who has endorsed a series of conservatives running against the candidates recruited by the national Republican Party, doesn't mind one bit that he's giving his own party's leaders fits.

"I think all of us need a little heartburn right now, until we get in alignment with where America is," DeMint said. He says his goal in backing conservatives is to keep the Tea Party activists inside the Republican tent.

"They don't want the establishment anymore," DeMint said. "They want some fresh faces to stop the reckless spending and the growth of government. I've tried to go out and find some of those candidates, and see if I can help put a spotlight on these Republicans who, in my mind, can help us avoid a third party by giving Republicans and independents good choices in Republican primaries.

Hoping For A Unified Front In November

So far there's only one state, Nevada, where a Tea Party group is running a third-party candidate for Senate. Republicans worry that could split the conservative vote and help the embattled Democrat there, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, hang onto his job.

Still, despite these examples, on the whole, the Republican Party is having a lot of success channeling the Tea Party energy in its direction.

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