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Election wins cement 'tea party' as national political force

The tea party movement is key to putting Republicans in charge of the House, but two candidates may have cost it a chance to run the Senate.

November 03, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The "tea party" movement, a loose amalgam of activists united chiefly by their determination to make government smaller, was on track to elect dozens of Republicans on Tuesday night — and to confirm its standing as a rising power in national politics.

Tea party-backed candidates scored early victories in several high-profile contests. In Florida, Marco Rubio was elected to the Senate, defeating two opponents. And in Kentucky, Rand Paul, one of the movement's highest-profile figures, capped success with a rousing declaration of movement values.

"I have a message from the people of Kentucky, a message that is loud and clear and that does not mince words: We've come to take our government back," Paul told supporters at a victory celebration. "America can rise up and surmount these problems if we just get government out of our way."

At the same time, two candidates with tea party backing may have cost Republicans a chance at controlling the Senate. In Delaware, Christine O'Donnell failed to shake off questions about seemingly bizarre past statements and establish herself as a credible candidate. At one point she took to the airwaves to declare, "I'm not a witch." In Nevada, Sharron Angle lost to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was deeply unpopular in his home state but spent months describing Angle as an out-of-touch extremist who would phase out Social Security and eliminate federal agencies.

Nearly 140 tea party-backed candidates were running in House or Senate races across the country. While roughly half were running as underdogs in Democratic-leaning districts and thus likely to fall short, more than dozen others appeared headed for election, and another two dozen were in tight races.

And tea party influence is likely to extend beyond mere numbers. By stiffening the anti-spending bloc in the House and Senate, the tea party members will put new pressure on conservative Democrats as well as members of their own party, impacting future legislative battles and the climate for 2012.

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

They've also vowed to reject additional stimulus for the economy.

Since emerging in opposition to 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.

"They're all talking to our issues," Andrew Ian Dodge, a tea party leader in Maine, said. "We've moved the discussion to our way of thinking."

The results in 11 Senate races featuring tea party candidates could determine whether the movement is remembered as a revival of conservatism or as a fringe force that limited the Republican party's appeal.

In Pennsylvania, former congressman and investment banker Pat Toomey bridged the establishment and conservative base in his state as he won his race. In Florida, Rubio had tea party help in pushing GOP Gov. Charlie Crist to run as an independent, but he broadened his appeal successfully in the general election.

They stand in contrast to Paul, who clinched his victory over Democratic Atty. Gen. Jack Conway while seeking to keep some distance between himself and party regulars. Initially, Paul was hard to pin down on whether he would vote for fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell for the leadership. Paul eventually said he would.

"No matter what happens in the Senate, people are going to know that we're serious, we're not going away," said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella network of local tea party groups. The group said it would be holding orientation sessions for incoming freshmen to "let them know what we expect of them."

Top on the list, Martin said, was to "defund in its entirety the government takeover of healthcare."

The movement, which began in February 2009 with a television reporter's rant against federal aid to troubled homeowners, grew quickly into the most visible source of opposition to Obama's policies and the most active corner of the Republican politics.

The result was a loose network joined by the tea party or "patriot" label – and sometimes little else.

Some argued that the movement should advocate only for issues; others actively endorsed candidates and jumped into the campaigns.

Supported by longtime Republican operatives, the latter organized hundreds of rallies, formed scores of local clubs, and began training volunteers.

Led by the Tea Party Express, a committee run by California GOP operative Sal Russo, these activists scored a string of early successes in small states where a relatively modest financial investment could have a large impact.

By the time voters went to the polls Tuesday, their influence had grown so much that they largely defined the political climate for almost all Republican candidate.

khennessey@tribune.com

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