Jim Cole, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The tea party is here to stay. The 2-year-old phenomenon's muscular role in the debt-ceiling crisis made that clear, despite earlier predictions it would fade away when the national furor over health care cooled down.
Now the GOP establishment wonders if the grass-roots movement will power Republicans to new victories in 2012, or dash them on the rocks of unbending ideology.
One thing is obvious: The tea party already is reshaping the Republican Party. Once-moderate lawmakers are shifting sharply right, fearing primary challenges more than Democratic opponents. And most GOP presidential contenders have positioned themselves to the right of party leaders, and even some House tea partyers, on the debt-ceiling issue.
The movement's influence on the GOP remains double-edged. Tea partyers' adamant opposition to tax hikes helped Republican Party regulars force President Barack Obama to surrender his push for new taxes on the rich. But House tea partyers also embarrassed Speaker John Boehner by forcing him to hastily revise his debt-ceiling bill.
To secure their votes, Boehner added a balanced-budget provision that had no hope of becoming law, and which drew ridicule from some quarters. A weakened requirement that the House and Senate only vote on — not necessarily pass — a balanced budget amendment before the end of the year survived in the final product.
With the tea party about to play its first role in a presidential election, mainstream Republicans hope to harness its energy in campaigns nationwide, as they did in 2010. The trick is to do it while avoiding the damage of that year, when tea partyers cost the GOP likely Senate pickups by nominating out-of-the-mainstream conservatives in Delaware, Nevada and Colorado.
The lesson, party insiders say, is not for the tea party to dampen its fire. Rather, they say, Republican candidates must understand its power. Shame on those who get blindsided this time.
The tea party is "driving the conversation," said Republican consultant Danny Diaz. "The president, Congress, Democrats, Republicans are all talking about austerity, restraint, the spending crisis. That's not going to change."
Asked if another tea party insurgent might cost Republicans a likely Senate win, as Christine O'Donnell did last year in Delaware, Diaz put the onus on the party's candidates. "If you are seeking office in this environment," he said, "it would behoove you to discuss the out-of-control spending that's taking place in Washington."
Another Republican consultant, Brian Nick, agreed. "A candidate has got to figure out a way to get through a primary," he said, and it's unfair to make scapegoats of tea partyers.
Veteran elected Republicans with mainstream conservative histories have gotten the message. Some are virtually reinventing themselves as tea partyers.
In Utah, already-conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch has veered so hard to the right that it's a constant topic of conversation, and sometimes amusement, in state political circles. Still, many wonder if he can survive if two-term Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a tea party favorite, decides to challenge him.
In New Mexico, former five-term Rep. Heather Wilson built a reputation as a GOP centrist, willing to buck her party's leaders and support raising the minimum wage and expanding children's health insurance. In 2008, she lost a Senate primary to a more conservative Republican.
Now, running for Senate again, Wilson has pledged to oppose raising the nation's debt ceiling unless Congress passes a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. That requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers, which lawmakers in both parties say is politically impossible.
Virginia Republican George Allen, who is trying to regain the Senate seat he lost in 2006, has taken a similar stand, even though he voted four times to raise the debt ceiling while in office.
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