3 years later, what's become of the tea party?

By Pauline Arrillaga

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The 78-year-old Hatch, first elected in 1976, faces several challengers at an April 21 GOP state convention. It was at that meeting two years ago that tea partyers notched their first congressional victory, defeating three-term Republican Sen. Bob Bennett.

Lugar, who like Hatch is seeking a seventh term, may face a bigger threat in his May 8 primary. State Treasurer Richard Mourdock has been endorsed by a coalition of Indiana tea party groups called Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate but also by national organizations including FreedomWorks, the anti-tax Club for Growth and the Tea Party Express, some of which have spent several hundred thousands of dollars supporting Lugar's opponent.

There is evidence of the tea party's influence, too, in the campaign of Romney, even if many harbor deep suspicions that he is a Massachusetts moderate. He has begun promoting some tea party-friendly positions, including a plan to partially privatize Medicare. And his stump speeches are sprinkled with lines that play to the tea party crowd, whether he's denouncing "career politicians" or imparting the virtues of the Constitution and the founding fathers or accusing President Barack Obama of wanting to "fundamentally transform" America and turn it into a "European-style entitlement society" with "burdensome regulations" that expand the role of government.

"To be successful in politics you have to be connected to the zeitgeist of the times. The tenor of the times today ... is opposition to the increasing size, cost and intrusiveness of the federal government," says Sal Russo, a veteran GOP political strategist who runs the Tea Party Express political action committee. "All of the candidates have successfully addressed the primary tea party issue in a way that tea party people would like. I hear people say (the GOP primary was) a titanic struggle between the tea party and the non-tea partyers. That's silly."

Perhaps nowhere is the persistent power of the tea party more at work today than at the local and state level, where many grassroots activists have decided to shift the focus of their efforts. More tea party-backed candidates are running for county and state Republican leadership positions, with the aim of having a bigger say in the party's agenda and direction.

It's happened in South Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Minnesota and Ohio, where the head of the state GOP resigned this month after a much-publicized battle between him and the governor, as well as tea party groups that aligned against him.

Another notable example is New Hampshire, where tea party organizer and former gubernatorial candidate Jack Kimball was elected GOP chairman in January 2011 by conservatives. Soon, GOP presidential hopefuls were reaching out to Kimball in that first-in-the-nation primary state. But Kimball stepped down eight months later amid infighting with the state's top Republican elected leaders, who questioned his ability to manage the organization and raise funds.

There have been other signs of backlash against the tea party, both within the GOP establishment and among the public at large. In New Hampshire, where Republicans in 2010 won supermajorities in both the state House and Senate, a recent poll of GOP primary voters found most saying they no longer support the tea party movement. That echoes a November Pew Research Center poll, which found waning support nationwide for the tea party but also in those congressional districts now represented by members of the House Tea Party Caucus.

In Indiana, a video popped up on YouTube urging voters to reject tea party candidates to the Madison County Republican Party in that state's upcoming May primary, telling viewers: "If you care about the real Republican Party, you must act now before it's too late," The Herald Bulletin newspaper reported.

In Florida, the state GOP chair removed the local head of the Volusia County Republican Executive Committee after a battle between him and more conservative Republicans. A tea party activist is now in charge, and that prompted one GOP political consultant to write a scathing online column urging Republicans to "resist the temptations and blind allegiance to ... any group that would be so arrogant as to want to change the party by disrupting it and destroying it."

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