As tea party reshapes GOP, some cheer, some worry

By Charles Babington

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Aug. 5 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Many congressional Republicans support the balanced-budget amendment. In the end, however, a solid majority of them, including most members of the House tea party caucus, voted for the bipartisan debt-limit deal that dropped a demand that the amendment first win passage and be sent to the states for ratification.

The big unknown is the tea party movement's influence on the presidential race. Some political professionals think tea partyers already are pushing GOP candidates so far right that the eventual nominee might struggle to pick up independent voters in the general election against Obama. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appeared unenthusiastic when announcing his opposition to the debt-ceiling compromise that Congress enacted with solid GOP support in both chambers.

Jon Huntsman, the only presidential hopeful to support the measure, said Romney did not show leadership.

The tea party's influence on the GOP "will come with heavy baggage in independent-leaning states like Maine or even Indiana," said Nate Daschle, a Democratic activist whose father was Senate majority leader. That could apply to Senate races in those states, where incumbent Republicans face tea party challengers for the nomination, and to the presidential race, he said. Obama won Indiana narrowly, and Maine handily, in 2008.

Independent voters skip most primaries but play big roles in general elections. They want "progress over rigid ideology," Daschle said.

If tea party voters dominate GOP primaries, they can nominate unorthodox candidates such as Delaware's O'Donnell.

"The tea party didn't happen by accident and it wasn't contrived," Daschle said. "It's one of the purest and most organic movements in politics today, and while it may endanger its parent party, this is exactly the way the system was designed."

A recent Pew Research/Washington Post poll suggests that Republicans did themselves few favors in the debt-ceiling struggle. About four in 10 Americans said they had a less favorable view of congressional Republicans because of the negotiations, while three in 10 said their opinion of Democrats in Congress faded. People who now have a dimmer view of tea party-affiliated lawmakers, because of the debt issue, outnumber those with a more positive view.

A CBS News/New York Times poll this week shows that only 20 percent of Americans and 41 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the tea party, down from 26 percent and 59 percent, respectively, in April. Just 18 percent of Americans now view themselves as tea party supporters, compared with 31 percent who did immediately after the November 2010 elections.

Texas Tech University political scientist Tim Nokken warns against overstating the tea party's influence. "I'm not sure the GOP is going to march lock-step with the tea party," he said in an email.

The movement may have its biggest impact on Republican House members eager to avoid a primary threat from the right, he said. These lawmakers may act "not so much out of agreement with the tea party agenda, but as a means to reduce the likelihood of a primary challenge," Nokken said.

Either way, the tea party is leaving a big mark on the GOP. And the limits of its influence are not yet clear.

Associated Press reporters Josh Loftin in Salt Lake City, and Kevin Freking, Henry C. Jackson and Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere