WASHINGTON — The tea party movement's grassroots conservatives rocked the political world this year by upsetting mainstream Republicans in several nominating contests, but they remain an uncertain force in November.
The movement has yet to be tested in a general election, when a much broader electorate votes.
"Tea party supporters will turn out, and in some states, their presence will be felt. But in purple and blue states (those that lean Democratic or are split politically), they may cost Republicans seats they should have," said Jennifer Duffy, political analyst for the Cook Political Report, an independent political research firm.
The tea party gained political stature this year when candidates supported by the loosely defined movement upset Republican establishment choices in Alaska, Nevada, Kentucky, Utah, Colorado, and Delaware. They also forced Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to leave the Republican Party and seek election to the Senate as an independent.
However, the tea party now faces a focused opposition that it lacked in GOP-only contests: Democrats are pushing hard to persuade voters that the tea party is extreme. Democrats cite how tea party activists disrupted lawmakers' town halls in summer 2009 and remind voters that tea party leaders today call for privatizing popular programs, including Social Security.
In November, Duffy said that a brewing backlash against the tea party could wound the GOP Senate candidates in Nevada and Delaware — two states where Republicans are banking on picking up Democratic-held seats, and crucial to their hopes for gaining control of the Senate.
Obama won both states in 2008, but in Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has lost popularity and is fighting for political survival. In Delaware, Republican Rep. Michael Castle had been expected to win the general election easily — he won 12 statewide contests before. However, he was toppled by tea party candidate Christine O'Donnell in a low-turnout GOP primary.
O'Donnell beat Castle in the closed primary with only about 30,000 votes. It takes far more to win a Delaware general election — Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat, won his 2006 race with about 170,000 votes, while Castle won his 2008 race with more than 235,000 votes. Democrats make up about half of the state's 650,000 registered voters, and independents another third.
O'Donnell hasn't yet broadened her constituency. Hurt by controversy over her personal finances and resume, she trails Democrat Chris Coons by 16 points in an average of recent polls collected by RealClearPolitics.com.
In Nevada, Reid is vulnerable, according to Duffy, but the weakness of his GOP opponent — tea party-backed Sharron Angle, a former assemblywoman prone to making provocative statements — is making the race closer than expected.
Angle and Reid are now in a virtual tie. While tea party energy is still evident in Nevada, "Angle's being exposed, and it's hurting her," said Eric Herzik, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada-Reno.
Republicans need a net gain of 39 seats to win control of the House of Representatives, a goal that independent analysts consider well within reach. In the Senate, the GOP must pick up 10 seats to win a majority. That's considered much less likely, though possible.
Surveys taken in the last two weeks show tea party-backed Senate favorites ahead in five states: Ken Buck in Colorado, Marco Rubio in Florida, Mike Lee in Utah, Joe Miller in Alaska, and Rand Paul in Kentucky.
In conservative states such as Kentucky and Utah, and in some hotly contested House districts, the tea party movement's supporters are likely to vote Republican in big numbers.
They share the same goal as mainstream GOP loyalists — to unseat Democrats.
"This election is largely about Democrats, and all Republicans really need is one or two talking points," said Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.
They've got them.
Point one: President Barack Obama is a political liability in conservative areas, including swing states such as Ohio and Indiana.
"The more he campaigns, the more people remember what they don't like," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican Senate campaign chief.
Point two: "Voters are ready for people who want to control spending," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and that's perhaps the tea party's most passionate goal.
"The tea party people have been out for a year now, going to rallies and knocking on doors," said Brad Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, who polls throughout the country. "I don't think they're going to go away."
Helping the tea party's push is the Republican establishment, which in most states moved quickly to embrace the tea party candidates.
Scott Jennings, a former deputy political director for President George W. Bush, explained that, like the traditional GOP, the tea party wants to reduce the size of government and its role in regulating private business. "Those are not concepts foreign to the Republican Party platform," said Jennings, now a political strategist based in Louisville, Ky.
The difference between tea party and mainstream Republicans is often their tone and style. However, the House GOP's "Pledge to America'' last month included some of the anger that's characterized the tea party movement: "An arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites makes decisions, issues mandates and enacts laws without accepting or requesting the input of the many," it said.
In the Senate, Cornyn's Republican committee saw tea party insurgents upend some of its preferred candidates. Still, this week he called the tea party a "constructive force; they've added a lot of energy to the races."
So far, however, that's only evident in conservative states.
The Democrats' House campaign chief, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, recently acknowledged the tea party's "political energy," but voiced confidence that "in the next four and a half weeks, you'll see Democrats and independents who don't want to go off and back Republican extremes decide they'll turn out" and vote for Democrats.
"People still appreciate compromise, and I think in the end they'll go in that direction," Delaware's Carper said.
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