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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Tea party's influence wanes as economy improves

Published: Sunday, June 13 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

It's summertime, and primary elections are the focus of politics, both in Utah and nationally. Here are some questions inquiring minds want answered:

In light of last Tuesday's primary elections in several states, is the tea party movement losing steam or picking up momentum?

Pignanelli: "Obviously, this whole socialist inspired oil spill was created by Obama and the environmentalists trying to take away our oil." — Louisiana tea party activist

Last week, an ABC News/Washington Post poll revealed that one half of all Americans have an unfavorable impression of the tea party movement (from 39 percent just two months ago). In the recent primaries on Tuesday, just one of 84 incumbents in a primary contest was completely swept from office: the beleaguered Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons. Only former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is enjoying any "tea party success," as most of her endorsed candidates — who did not face incumbents in the primary — won handily (i.e. Carly Fiona in California and Nikki Haley in South Carolina). Americans possess a deep common sense to understand that shouting nasty slogans is no substitute for leadership and thoughtful action and policies. The tea party movement will soon be a humorous memory.

Webb: I'm still not sure exactly what constitutes the tea party, or who the tea party candidates are. Is every strongly-conservative candidate a tea party candidate? At any rate, the results of the primary were mixed across the country for both ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative candidates. Some won, some lost.

It must be remembered that primary elections, generally with low turnouts, are the playground of the extremes of both parties. The real test for candidates on the extremes will be the general election, when candidates must appeal to mainstream voters.

That said, a strong anti-establishment, anti-incumbent tide still exists. Many voters are angry and unnerved, and normal political times won't return until the economy improves.

In the Utah U.S. Senate Republican primary contest (to be decided June 22), Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee are trying out-conservative each other. Will their right-wing rhetoric hurt them in the general election against Democrat Sam Granato?

Webb: Granato is not a strong enough candidate to win, even against a far-right Republican. The Republican winner will likely temper his rhetoric in the general election. You can still be a solid conservative and not advocate such silly stuff as repealing the 17th Amendment of the Constitution (as Lee and Bridgewater have done). I'm as strong an advocate as anyone for restoring a proper balance in our federal system, but citizens are never going to give up their right to elect their U.S. senators. Let's focus on real solutions, not tilt at windmills.

Ultimately, voters are going to want problem-solvers who will work with other members of Congress to attack the country's real crises, rather than ideologues who like to throw oratorical bombs, but do little to resolve challenges.

My hope is the next Congress won't be so polarized that it is incapable of action. If it is dysfunctional, then we can all be mad as hell at the new do-nothing incumbents who aren't solving America's problems.

Pignanelli: "Certainly not our best and proudest moment!" is how a leading Utah Republican leader described the ouster of Sen. Bob Bennett at convention and the tea party rhetoric surrounding the party contests. Mainstream Utah Republicans are grumbling at the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, but also shaking their heads at the civil war within the GOP. This provides an open door for clever Democrats to step in and articulate a constructive, nonpartisan message to address local and national concerns. What could have been a horrible year for Democrats just may be an opportunity in the making.

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