Tea Party: Help Or Hindrance To Republican Party

The field of U.S. Senate candidates is set for the November election. On the Republican side, the nominees reflect the rising influence of the Tea Party movement. Primary results have shown a shift to the right for the GOP. The question is whether that will limit the big gains the party had hoped for in the fall.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

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And Im Linda Wertheimer. Good morning.

The field of U.S. Senate candidates is set for the November elections, and the influence of the Tea Party movement on the Republican Party has been one of the most important stories this year. Tea Party-backed candidates defeated a number of GOP establishment candidates. In a big upset this week in Delaware, Christine ODonnell beat long-time Congressman Mike Castle for the Republican Senate nomination. Thanks to that and to other Tea Party victories in primary races, Republican nominees are shifting to the right. The question is, what impact that will have in November?

Here's NPRs Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA: Dover, Delaware - Tuesday. Christine O'Donnell worked the room, accepting congratulations from Tea Party activists who put her over the top.

Ms. CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Delaware): Hey, thank you so much.

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible)

Ms. O'DONNELL: Thank you.

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible)

Ms. O'DONNELL: Thank you.

GONYEA: But even before she delivered her victory speech that night, the leading GOP political guru, Karl Rove, was on Fox News dismissing her chances, even calling O'Donnell nutty. Other top Republicans have been critical as well. Rove had considered Delaware's open Senate seat a prime target for Republicans this year. Not anymore.

Mr. KARL ROVE (Fox News): Im for the Republican. But I got to tell you, we were looking at eight to nine seats in the Senate. We're now looking at seven to eight, in my opinion. This is not a race were going to be able to win.

GONYEA: Which makes it less likely Republicans will be able to take control of the Senate. Democrats see Christine O'Donnell as a gift, as they do other Tea Party-backed candidates - Rand Paul in Kentucky, Ken Buck in Colorado, Sharon Angle in Nevada - each of whom knocked off establishment Republicans in primary elections. But with the exception of Delaware, polls show Republicans are coming together, and Tea Party-backed Senate hopefuls are either in the lead or involved in very close races.

But Democrats are working hard to define them as extremists. Here's an ad being run by Democratic leader Harry Reid in Nevada.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #2: She says shed phase out Social Security - that its like welfare. And shed even eliminate the Department of Education.

Unidentified Man #3: Would you eliminate the Department of Education, or simply cut it back?

Ms. SHARRON ANGLE (Republican Senatorial Candidate): I would like to go through to the elimination.

Unidentified Man #2: Shes Sharron Angle and shes just too extreme.

GONYEA: And Democrats are doing something else. They want voters in places like Colorado or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania to look at Christine O'Donnell or Sharon Angle and think twice about voting for any Republican.

But Glen Bolger, a top Republican pollster, dismisses such attempts.

Mr. GLEN BOLGER (Republican Pollster): I haven't seen it being a big deal in the polling that I'm doing. So this is not, you know, a situation where what is happening in one state is going to have an impact on another.

GONYEA: Still, Democratic strategist Mark Melman says there is an opportunity for Democrats.

Mr. MARK MELMAN (Democratic Strategist): These candidates rise and fall on their own for the most part. But there is an indirect effect, because the nomination of these extreme right Republican candidates across the country puts a rather ugly face on the Republican Party as a whole. The national story is how these extreme candidates in Nevada, in Colorado, in Delaware, really across the country, have taken over the Republican Party.

GONYEA: Glenn Bolger says this misses the point. He says the Republican edge with voters is rooted in some very basic things: the economy, jobs, taxes and health care.

Mr. BOLGER: This election is about big picture stuff. Thats what voters are focused on. Republican campaigns who focus on that are going to do well in November, and those that kind of go off on detours arent gonna do as well.

GONYEA: Polls show a huge Republicans advantage over Democrats in enthusiasm. Democrats enjoyed their own edge in that category in the last two elections, and took over Congress as a result.

But Congressional Quarterly's Bob Benenson says there's a difference between then and now. This year, Republicans overall are running to the right, while Democrats in '06 and '08 tended to run toward the center in closely contested races.

Mr. BOB BENENSON (Congressional Quarterly): The Republicans in 2006, 2008 tried to brand them all as extreme liberals. But they just didnt present themselves that way or come off that way in their campaigns. So they were acceptably enough within the mainstream that even a lot people who normally dont vote for Democrats were willing to vote for them.

GONYEA: Benenson says the question is whether those same voters, those in the political center, will be comfortable voting for very conservative Republicans in November. Republicans are confident they will.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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