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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.
 
 
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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.

But DeMint is more than a Tea Party crowd-pleaser; he's positioning himself as a kingmaker. In Florida, where GOP leaders rushed to the side of Gov. Charlie Crist when he announced his 2010 run for an open U.S. Senate seat, DeMint endorsed primary challenger Marco Rubio, another favorite of the Tea Party crowd. DeMint's endorsement comes with more than kind words for the challenger; DeMint's PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund, has money to spread around on behalf of challengers like Rubio. Charlie Crist's big sin in the eyes of the Tea Party crowd is neither his early career ambivilence on outlawing abortion or charges that he is secretly gay, but rather his appearance with Obama in support of the president's stimulus package. Dick Armey also endorsed Rubio.

"You will see in this movement, I think we're going to focus on a handful of [Senate] races like Connecticut, getting geared up, Nevada, getting geared up, Florida, supporting Rubio in the primary over Crist, and possibly even Rand Paul..in Kentucky," said Adam Brandon.

Brandon took his own vacation time, he said, to work for Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in the special New York State congressional election. More recently, he said, Dick Armey met with the president of the Connecticut chapter of the Tea Party Patriots, Bob MacGuffie, who authored a memo on how to disrupt congressional town-hall meetings. In Connecticut, Democrat Chris Dodd is expected to face a tough re-election fight. "[W]e sat down, and we talked strategy in the Connecticut race, and I am so excited about Connecticut," Brandon said. (The FreedomWorks spokesman was quick to note that this was the first time that Armey and MacGuffie had met; when the MacGuffie memo was distributed this summer through a network involving FreedomWorks activists, Armey was a accused of being in league with the Connecticut activist. Brandon insists the two were not collaborating on the town-hall tactics.)

In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is expected face a tough re-election battle. Tea Party activists in that state are touting the candidacy of Republican Danny Tarkanian, who currently leads Reid by seven points in a Rasmussen poll. Still, polling among Republicans for the Senate primary race finds the Tea Party candidate tied with former state GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden, the establishment party candidate.

Kentucky libertarian Rand Paul, son of Texas Congressman Ron Paul -- the quixotic 2008 presidential candidate with a small but ardent following -- is giving his primary opponent a run for his money in the Republican primary for the seat being vacated by Jim Bunning. The AP reports that Paul is showing naysayers, who gave him little chance in defeating Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, giving him a second look, now that he has collected $1.3 million in campaign donations, largely through internet fundraising. Even with the backing of establishment Republican figures, Grayson is tied with Paul in the fundraising department.

Pennsylvania's Tea Party activists have a special dislike for Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched to the Democratic Party last year after having spent most of his career as a Republican. While Spector appears to be well-positioned to fend of a challenge from his left -- he'll likely face a primary challenge from Rep. Joe Sestack -- he's running neck-and-neck with his likely Republican opponent, Tea Party favorite Pat Toomey, who addressed an event sponsored by another Tea Party-allied lobbying group, Americans for Prosperity, this summer.

Yet for all this Tea Party activity, the Rasmussen poll found that only 12 percent of Democratic voters were "closely following" the movement, and half of all Democrats had no opinion of the movement. Independents -- a group that broke for Democrats in the 2008 elections -- seemed most inclined to throw in with the Tea Party candidates, which could deprive the margin of victory to Democrats facing close races in 2010.

"We're going to have a big year," says Tea Party activist and FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon.

 

 

 

Adele M. Stan AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.