Which Matters Most to the 'Tea Party': Win Seats or Reshape GOP?

Article excerpt

The 'tea party' movement has driven out some GOP 'establishment' candidates. The big question is whether activists' picks can win in November, though that may not be what they care about most.

If Republican leadership felt a little unsettled about the "tea party" movement and how it would affect the GOP this election cycle, now it must be downright rattled. Tea party activists are proving ready and able to shake up state GOP conventions and Republican primary races, potentially endangering short-term Republican gains in Congress in favor of a wholesale reengineering of the party.

So far, the tea party movement has forced TARP-embracing Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to go "independent" in his Senate race, to try to survive an insurgent bid by tea party favorite Marco Rubio. In Utah, three-term Sen. Robert Bennett placed a distant third in the state convention this weekend, ending his Washington career. In moderate Maine, the GOP convention over the weekend incorporated into its platform tea party principles such as restoring 10th Amendment protections against federal overreach.

So far, the tea party's main effect has been to reject GOP establishment figures such as Senator Bennett and Governor Crist, a sign to many commentators that the Republican Party is being pulled too far to the right. Whether purge or insurrection, a grass-roots movement intent on picking off both moderate Republicans and Democrats is a new page in the history of populist political movements.

IN PICTURES: Tea Parties and Copyediting tea party signs

"This kind of insurgency is much more unusual than, say, [the Reagan revolution or the Gingrich revolution]," says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. "You have a sort of classic establishment view that you're about getting the seats [in Congress] and that's what grown-up leaders in Washington worry about [versus] this very intense amateur movement, but one that believes in something."

A rightward turn in the party may complicate the task of Senator Cornyn, who heads the committee to help Republican senators get elected. Some of his GOP colleagues, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina among them, have anointed "tea party" challengers to establishment Republicans. (Senator DeMint refused to endorse Bennett in Utah and picked Rubio in Florida. DeMint says he'd rather "stand with a committed minority than a big-tent majority," according to the Associated Press.)

Electability is Cornyn's top concern. "My goal is simply to build our numbers so we can provide checks and balances to single-party power here in Washington," Cornyn told the AP on Monday. "I think [DeMint] has a different goal, which is to try to move the Republican conference in a more conservative direction. If that were possible and we were able to win elections all around the country, I would be all for it, but I think as a pragmatic matter we've got to nominate Republicans who can get elected in their states. …

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