'Tea party' poised to solidify its position

— 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.

They stand in contrast to Paul, who clinched his victory over Democratic Attorney General 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 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 would be holding orientation sessions for incoming freshman to "let them know what we expect of them."

Top on the list, said Martin, 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 the president's plan to help homeowners, grew quickly into the most visible source of opposition to Obama's policies and the most active corner of the Republican politics.

Supported by longtime Republican operatives, a new class of grass roots activists organized hundreds of rallies, formed scores of local clubs, collected thousands of emails addresses and engaged in political training.

The result was a loose network of conservatives connected by the tea party or "patriot" label — and sometimes little else. While rising in prominence, the tea party also was shaken by internal power struggles and accusations of racism.

Some activists stayed narrowly focused on the issues of taxing and spending; others delved into obscure constitutional debates. Some argued that the movement should only advocate for issues, others actively endorsed candidates and jumped into the campaigns.

The latter found considerable success in the Republican primaries. Led by the Tea Party Express, a committee run by California GOP operative Sal Russo, tea party activists focused on primaries in small states where a relatively modest financial investment could have a large impact.

The group drove Angle's early surge, helped Joe Miller defeat incumbent Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (until she entered as a write-in candidate) and helped unseat Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah.

Other Republicans took notice, which is why some tea party activists say they don't need to see big victories on Tuesday to declare their movement successful.

"They're all talking to our issues," said Andrew Ian Dodge, a tea party leader in Maine. "The tea party has almost completely eradicated the discussion of anything but fiscal issues.  We've moved the discussion to our way of thinking."

khennessey@tribune.com

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