Jun 11, 2010 4:54 PM by Chris Welty
WASHINGTON (AP) - The tea party movement shows some growing
pains, but it still wields remarkable powers to shape the
Republican Party and set up a fall election with unconventional
candidates and stark choices for voters.
In two high-profile primary elections Tuesday, establishment GOP
candidates were stunned by come-from-behind winners backed by tea
party activists and other conservatives who don't necessarily
associate with that loose-knit group.
National Republican leaders are sifting through the results.
Voter fervor on the right encourages them, but some fear their
insurgent nominees might stray too far from the mainstream to win
The party purity drive has a weaker grip on the Democratic
Party, as centrist Sen. Blanche Lincoln illustrated when she held
off a union-backed challenger in Arkansas.
In South Carolina's Republican gubernatorial primary, state Rep.
Nikki Haley trailed a congressman, the lieutenant governor and
attorney general for months. But a tea party surge and Sarah
Palin's endorsement propelled her to an easy first-place finish.
She faces Rep. Gresham Barrett in a June 22 runoff.
In Nevada, tea party favorite Sharron Angle overtook a
better-known rival and won the right to challenge Senate Majority
Leader Harry Reid in the fall. The outcome delighted Reid, who
hopes to revive his re-election prospects by highlighting Angle's
unorthodox views, such as privatizing Social Security and
eliminating the federal Energy and Education departments.
The tea party is not invincible, of course. Relatively
mainstream Republican candidates won the Senate and gubernatorial
nominations in California. And conservatives' quarrels in a highly
competitive House district in Virginia spelled doom for five
candidates who claimed tea party ties.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found growing discontent
with the tea party movement, with half of Americans saying they
have an unfavorable impression of it.
But some conservatives see it as sign of maturity, with people
paying more attention and recognizing the tea party's clout.
In South Carolina, Barrett, a four-term congressman, and two
other GOP gubernatorial hopefuls were better known than Haley. In
the primary's closing days, "the big difference was the tea party,
the grass roots, the awakening you see across the country
gravitated towards Nikki Haley," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a
tea party champion. "That was pretty stunning."
The movement had another victory on Tuesday. In Maine, a tea
party favorite, Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, won the GOP
nomination for governor.
These events follow the stunning rejection of three-term Sen.
Bob Bennett of Utah in a GOP convention, libertarian-conservative
Rand Paul's victory over a Republican establishment favorite in
Kentucky's Senate primary and Gov. Charlie Crist's forced
withdrawal from Florida's GOP Senate primary.
Democratic voters have shown a similar but less virulent
impatience with perceived compromisers.
Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter lost his
renomination bid in Pennsylvania, but Lincoln narrowly survived in
In general, conservative activists are pushing the Republican
Party to the right more than liberal activists are pushing the
Democratic Party to the left, said Emory University political
scientist Alan Abramowitz.
If either side pushes too far, however, it can end up with
nominees unpalatable to centrist and unaffiliated voters who turn
out in November but not in primaries.
"The base of the parties are looking for ideological purity.
The middle is looking for effective leadership," said Sen. Lindsey
Graham, R-S.C., who has angered some tea party activists by
occasionally working with Democrats on issues such as climate
change and immigration.
"The more you have to worry about being challenged by the
base," he said, "the less likely you are to engage in solution
politics that people are yearning for."
Democrats say that's precisely where the tea party movement is
taking the GOP, and they are working overtime to portray Angle,
Rand and others as fringe candidates.
The challenge for Republican officials in Nevada, Kentucky and
elsewhere is to make peace with their non-establishment nominees
and harness the right wing's fervor for the fall campaigns.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who strongly
backed Paul's opponent, Trey Grayson, in the Kentucky primary, is
taking the first step. He will host a June 24 fundraiser for Paul
in Washington, at $1,000 per person.