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'Tea party' poised to solidify its position

The loosely defined movement was likely to extend its influence with the election of dozens of Republicans on Tuesday night.

November 02, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

Washington — — The "tea party" movement, a loose amalgam of activists united chiefly by their determination to make government smaller, was poised Tuesday night to elect dozens of Republicans — and to solidify itself as a power center in Congress and national politics.

One of the movement's most high-profile champions seized an early victory. Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist and son of longtime conservative icon Rep. Ron Paul, appeared have scored an easy victory in his Senate race in Kentucky.

Nearly 140 so-called tea party candidates were on the ballot in House or Senate races across the country. While roughly half were running as underdogs in Democratic-leaning districts and thus likely to come up short, two dozen others were expected to have an easy path to victory.

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And their influence is likely to extend beyond mere numbers, especially when it comes to federal spending: By augmenting the conservative, anti-spending blocs that already existed in the House and Senate, the tea party members will put more pressure on other Republicans and on conservative Democrats — affecting future legislative battles and the political climate as the 2012 presidential election draws nearer.

For months, many in tea party ranks have railed against Washington and an administration they describe as set on expanding government to a dangerous level. Many have promised to make their first order of business a vote on repealing President Obama's signature healthcare law.

They've also vowed to reject additional stimulus spending.

"I won't compromise on spending," said Sean Duffy, a Republican running to replace retiring Democratic Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin.

In about 25 races, tea party candidates were locked in tight battles where independent voters rule the day.

Experts predicted tea party strength to be most visible in House races. In Florida, Steve Southerland, a co-founder of a local tea party group, had launched a strong challenge to unseat Rep. Allen Boyd, a conservative "Blue Dog" Democrat in his seventh term.

In Missouri, Rep. Ike Skelton, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was fighting for his career against Vicky Hartzler, a candidate endorsed by FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group backing tea party candidates.

The picture was far different in Senate races, where some in the crop of 11 tea party candidates had struggled under the heat of national scrutiny. In Delaware, for example, the tea party-affiliated GOP candidate Christine O'Donnell went down to defeat after struggling against the extremist label.

At one point she took to the airwaves to declare, "I'm not a witch."

In Colorado, Ken Buck walked back statements that appeared to suggest he wanted to privatize veterans' hospitals.

The results in key Senate races — where the candidates must build coalitions outside the tea party base — could determine whether the movement is remembered as a revival of conservatism that opened the way to GOP dominance in Washington and national politics — or as a fringe force that limited the party's appeal.

The Nevada Senate race would be a test case. Tea party favorite Sharron Angle faced off against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has spent months describing Angle as an out-of-touch extremist who wants to phase out Social Security and eliminate federal agencies.

The deeply unpopular Reid was among the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate even before voters seemed to turn against his party. But Angle's victory in the GOP primary gave him hope that a state trending Democratic might reject a hard turn to the right.

If voters reject Angle, it will largely be because Reid's portrait of tea party extremism resonated.

"I'm not doing anything that could support, or have anything to do with, the tea party," said Kandyce Douglas, after voting for Reid in northwest Las Vegas. "Have you heard what that woman has been saying?"

The outcome in those races could bear heavy on the future of the movement and the GOP. Since emerging in opposition to President Obama's economic programs, the tea party has had remarkable success in ousting Republicans it deemed moderate while forcing nearly all GOP candidates to take a hard line on taxes, spending and opposition to the healthcare law.

What remains was for it to prove its message and messengers resonated outside the Republican Party.

The tea party candidates who were running strongest heading into Tuesday had largely avoided being pegged as fringe candidates and did not fit the mold of political outsider.

In Pennsylvania, former congressman and investment banker Pat Toomey seemed to bridge to establishment and conservative base in his state. In Florida, Marco Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House, scored an early victory in a three-way race for Senate. Rubio had tea party help in pushing GOP Gov. Charlie Crist to run as an independent, but broadened his appeal significantly in the general election.

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