News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Has the GOP Collapse Begun? Hypothetical "Tea Party" Outpolls Republicans

Something is afoot among the conservative base -- voting Republican doesn't seem to cut it anymore, and incumbents are getting nervous.

Establishment Republicans, take notice. The Tea Party is about to steal your thunder.

According to a poll by Rasmussen Reports, likely voters in the 2010 congressional elections would rather cast a ballot for a candidate bearing the Tea Party brand than one on the Republican line.

In a national survey of likely voters, Rasmussen asked respondents to choose their favored political party for the congressional contests in what pollsters call a generic ballot. In a three-way contest, Democrats fared best, with 36 percent, while a hypothetical Tea Party came in second at 23 percent, and Republicans pulled up the rear with 18 percent. But there is one wrinkle in the Tea Party triumph scenario: There is no political party called the Tea Party, which might lead one to question whether Rasmussen is stirring the simmering pot of  Republican Party politics.

Although the poll results look awful for Republicans, the absence of an actual established political party called the Tea Party makes the GOP the likely host party for Tea Party-endorsed candidates. While this could lead to some losses in 2010, the net effect will likely be to move the establishment GOP further to the right-wing Tea Party agenda of small government, lower taxes, union busting and virtually no social safety net.

Because there's no political party yet formed under the Tea Party banner, Tea Party movement groups are supporting primary challenges to establishment Republican candidates, such as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who faces challenger Marco Rubio in the GOP primary for a U.S. Senate seat. Tea Party activists could also, as they did with the Conservative Party in New York State during a special election last month in the state's 23rd congressional district, work with an established third party in areas where the Republican Party machinery is locked up.

In New York's special election, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, in a direct challenge to GOP leaders, swooped in to the race, throwing his endorsement behind a third-party candidate, Doug Hoffman, in favor of the candidate selected by the local Republican Party, Dede Scozzafava,  who was deemed too liberal on fiscal matters and her support for organized labor. As chairman of FreedomWorks, a Washington lobbying group involved in organizing the Tea Party disruptions of congressional town-hall meetings this summer, and sponsor of the Tea Party September 12 march on Washington, Armey's endorsement brought with it legions of Tea Party activists working on Hoffman's behalf, and the "me-too" endorsements of potential presidential hopefuls Sarah Palin, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, as well as a flurry of television ads sponsored by the Club for Growth.

Unable to compete, Scozzafava withdrew from the race and endorsed Democrat Bill Owens, who won. But for Armey and his Tea Party activists, the loss was a win. The Republican Party was effectively put on notice that unless they toe the Tea Party line, they're going to suffer the consequences. " We'll probably be getting more political in targeted races," said FreedomWorks Press Secretary Adam Brandon.

Although Tea Party movement leaders like to present their movement's challenge to the GOP as something born outside the beltway, this is really a fight between Republican Party figures. In addition to Armey, who served as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Number Two during those heady days of the Republican congressional majority that impeached President Bill Clinton, Tea Party allies include sitting senators and members of Congress.

At the Washington, D.C., premiere of "Tea Party: The Documentary" -- an event sponsored by FreedomWorks -- Armey was joined on the stage by a handful of Republican members of Congress for a series of laudatory remarks about the Tea Party movement. Taking part were Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia (who also chairs the right-wing Republican Study Committee), Rep. Joe "You Lie" Wilson of South Carolina, and South Carolina's junior senator, Jim DeMint, who promised to make health-care reform President Barack Obama's "Waterloo". DeMint pleased the premiere attendees by saying, seeing all the campaign dollars reaped by Wilson after he heckled the president during a joint session of Congress, he wished he had done some heckling himself.