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Will the Tea Party Take the Senate? 8 Races to Watch

The Republicans may not win the Senate, but the Tea Party could take it hostage, thanks to millions of unaccountable dollars, post-Citizens United.
 
 
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If you listen to election-night prognosticators, the commentary on the races for U.S. Senate will be all about how many seats Republicans are likely to pick up as the night wears on. Right now, the Democrats have 57, plus two independents -- Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut -- who caucus with them. Republicans hold 41 seats.  

In order to win what the pundits call control of the Senate -- meaning that Mitch McConnell, now the Senate minority leader would gain the title "majority leader" -- Republicans need to pick up 10 seats today. No reputable pollster expects that to happen; most predict a Republican pickup of between seven and nine seats, one of which may well be that of the current Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada.

But even if the Republicans win only seven and McConnell keeps his current title, the Republicans will have effectively won control of the Senate because of the kind of Republicans who will be joining their caucus: enter the Tea Party.

As AlterNet reported in "Tea Party Inc.," as part of our collaborative journalism project with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, the undisputed leader of the Tea Party contingent in the Senate is Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who said that "complete gridlock" in the Senate, which makes it impossible for President Barack Obama to see any of his agenda pass into law, would be good for business. And, given the arcane rules of the Senate, it doesn't take much to gum up the works; a handful of senators willing to bear the title of gridlocker will do. And there's no title a Tea Partier would rather have. The brand is, after all, built on the notion of government as bad and Obama as worse.

Of the eight seats that Democrats are given more than a 60-percent chance of losing by Nate Silver of Five Thirty-Eight, four will go to Tea Party-branded candidates if Silver's predictions hold up. But the story doesn't end there.

In another four open seats currently held by establishment Republicans, Tea Party candidates running on the Republican line are likely to win. Taken together -- the seats added to the GOP margin by Tea Party candidates, and the Tea Party candidates likely to be seated in open races that don't affect the current ratio of Dems to Repubs -- these candidates, if they win, represent a shift in power away from McConnell and toward Sen. Jim DeMint, who bankrolled many of these Tea Party candidacies through his Senate Conservatives Fund PAC, and endorsed them all.

Much of DeMint's largess went to what are known as "independent expenditures" for advertising and communications made on a candidate's behalf, ostensibly without their knowledge. Many of the negative ads you see on television arguing against a particular candidate are made using independent expenditures. As of October 13 (the most recent filing available), DeMint's PAC spent more than $6 million on behalf of 11 candidates, including almost $2 million in independent expenditures.

In light of the tens of millions being spent by Karl Rove's American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, make no mistake: these candidates are getting plenty of Rove's money, too -- money they'd never have been in a position to receive without DeMint's help in securing their spots on the GOP ballot. American Crossroads dumped $6 million into a single race for one of DeMint's favored candidates, Marco Rubio of Florida.

Furthermore, DeMint was the early backer of many of these candidates. So even though his PAC may not be their biggest donor, several, like Rubio and Rand Paul in Kentucky, basically owe their viability to DeMint's backing, often with an assist from FreedomWorks, the Tea Party-branded astroturf group chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas. These are candidates who won their primaries as challengers who vanquished candidates endorsed by McConnell or backed by the Republican establishment.

On a July conference call for FreedomWorks activists, Rand Paul said that, if elected, he planned to create a Tea Party caucus in the Senate. The next day, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., picked up that ball and ran with it, creating a Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives.

Once Paul creates his caucus, its membership won't be limited to the Tea Partiers who win their seats today. You can expect many existing members, including DeMint and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, for example, to join up, all for the purpose of sending a message to McConnell: "We will not be moved ... to pass anything."

Here are the Senate races Tea Partiers could win:

Nevada: Sharron Angle v. Harry Reid. When Sharron Angle first swiped the GOP nomination from Sue Lowden, the GOP establishment candidate, more than a few progressives gave a cheer -- Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos among them. Angle is so crazy, he told attendees of his Netroots Nation conference last July, that Harry Reid, the beleaguered Senate majority leader, will look great by comparison.

Today Reid is locked in a tossup contest with Angle, whom Silver favors to win; in fact, he gives her an 82-percent chance of winning. Angle supports the elimination of the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency. She opposes abortion in all circumstances. Before she launched a candidacy on the GOP line, she belonged to the Independent American Party, the Nevada affiliate of the Constitution Party, which seeks to replace the nation's secular law with Old Testament law, which calls for the execution of adulterers and people who have gay sex.

Not only is Angle poised to win a seat in the United States Senate today; if she does, she'll have defeated the Democrats' leader in that great, deliberative body.

Although DeMint did not endorse Angle until she won her primary, he jumped right on board once she did. In an audiotape of a phone conservation released by her rival, Jon Scott Ashjian, Angle boasted of her relationship with the South Carolina kingmaker: “I have juice with him … I go to Washington, D.C., and want to see Jim DeMint, he’s right there for me,” Angle said to Ashjian on the tape, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund has spent, as of its last filing, $263,000 in the Nevada Senate race. Rove's Crossroads GPS has spent, as of its last filing, $2.4 million in that race, and his American Crossroads spent $1.5 million. Americans for Prosperity, the Astroturf group founded by oil billionaire David Koch, spent $68,851, while Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition spread around $210,000. Tea Party Express kicked in $943,000.

Florida: Marco Rubio v. Charlie Crist v. Kendrick Meek. If there's any race that marks a great triumph for DeMint, it's this one. Rubio is the Tea Party's golden boy, a 39-year-old son of Cuban immigrants blessed with good looks, a great personal story and podium charisma. Rubio's primary challenge to Gov. Charlie Crist, who had won the early backing of McConnell's National Republican Senatorial Committee, pushed Crist out of the primary -- and the Republican Party -- when the polls began trending against him. Crist remains in the race as in independent, running against both Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek, who is polling poorly while Rubio surges. Crist is hanging on, but not expected to win.

While the seat is not a pickup for the Republicans -- they already had this one, held by the retiring Mel Martinez -- Rubio's ability to snatch the nomination out from under a popular sitting governor signals a power shift in the Republican Party, one brought forth by DeMint and the astroturfing groups FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.  

As reported by Tristram Korten, FreedomWorks marks the birth of the Tea Party movement to the February 2010 rally at which Crist embraced Obama, and celebrated the stimulus money that would flow to Florida under Obama's plan. There, a dozen protesters trained by FreedomWorks gathered, later becoming the Orlando Tea Party. As of its last filing, DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund spent $424,000 on Rubio's behalf, including independent expenditures. Rove's American Crossroads has spent more than $2 million in the race, and its sibling organization, Crossroads GPS, threw in more than $708,000. Nate Silver estimates Rubio's chance at winning to be 93 percent.

Kentucky: Rand Paul v. Jack Conway. Another feather in DeMint's cap -- and one, as Dan Bischoff reported, a feather won for relatively little investment.

Kentucky is the home state of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Rand Paul was not the candidate he endorsed.

Despite the humbling blow delivered to McConnell with Paul's primary win over state Attorney General Trey Grayson, the minority leader has taken Paul by the hand, and led him to the pot of gold held by the Republican establishment -- the campaign coffers of McConnell's own National Republican Senatorial Committee, as well as those of such Republican-branded outside groups as Rove's Crossroads organizations.

Like Angle, Paul has also said he's opposed to abortion in all circumstances, and has links to the Constitution Party. (He delivered a keynote address to a party event in Minnesota last year.) He made big news when, the day after winning his primary, he went on the Rachel Maddow show to explain which parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act he had a problem with. (Hint: it's the part that bars businesses that serve the public from discriminating on the basis of race, color and creed.)

Paul's campaign has benefited from $91,000 (including independent expenditures) spent on his behalf by the Senate Conservatives Fund. American Crossroads has spent $1.5 million on Paul's behalf, while its sibling organization, Crossroads GPS, has tossed in $338,000.

Kentucky's open seat was held by the retiring Republican, Jim Bunning, so it's not a pickup for the party. Nate Silver estimates Paul's chances of winning at 100 percent.

Wisconsin: Ron Johnson v. Russell Feingold.Just as FreedomWorks had its sights trained on Charlie Crist for more than a year, so has Americans For Prosperity had Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold targeted for a fall. And it's likely they'll succeed. In September, the progressive group OneWisconsinNow uncovered a plotinvolving Americans for Prosperity's Wisconsin chapter to manipulate voter turnout by sending post cards to voters in Democratic districts, instructing them to call a number on the card to verify their registration. At the same time, the group planned to use any cards returned as undeliverable as devices to challenge the registration of the voters they were mailed to. That latter part sounds almost kosher until you notice that one district to which the cards were sent -- in August -- is largely populated by students at the University of Wisconsin, who were on summer break. Americans for Prosperity paid for the mailing.

At the same time, billboards were posted along highways threatening voters with prosecution and jail if they tried to vote "illegally." An audiotape of a local Republican meeting surfaced in which a GOP official said that AFP was going to pay for the billboards, though, when they went up, they said that they were paid for by "a private family foundation."

In the meantime, Feingold's challenger emerged: Ron Johnson, a millionaire who has put $10 million of his own private fortune into the race. Not that he doesn't have friends. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, according to the Wisconsin Democratic Party, has, as of Oct. 27, spent $742,000 on attack ads against Feingold.

Americans for Prosperity was founded by oil magnate David Koch, whose family foundations have funded climate-change-deniers for decades. Johnson told the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,  "I absolutely do not believe that the science of man-caused climate change is proven." He attributed global warming to sunspot activity. Silver casts the odds for victory in Johnson's favor, giving him a 96-percent chance of picking up Feingold's seat for the Republicans.

Utah: Mike Lee v. Sam Granato. Utah is a Republican state, so there's little surprise the Republican is favored to win this race. What was a surprise was the unseating of longtime Republican Bob Bennett at Utah's state GOP convention last summer, orchestrated in part by the great minds at FreedomWorks. Despite Bennett's conservative credentials, he wasn't right-wing enough on the business front to suit the deregulatory agenda of Dick Armey's organization. So they helped to pack the state convention with Tea Party activists who voted against Bennett as their nominee in a vote that should have been a formality, clearing the path for Bennett to once again represent his party. Jim DeMint appeared on video to endorse Mike Lee, an attorney with ties to the energy industry. As Andrew Belonsky reported for AlterNet, Lee once represented a firm that was trying to dump 1,600 tons of imported nuclear waste on the state he will likely represent come January.

Hell -- or its nuclear reactor -- would truly have to freeze over for Lee to lose this race, which Silver gives him a 0-percent chance of doing. Nonetheless, DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund isn't taking any chances, having spent $332,000 on Lee's behalf. (In fairness, some of that was spent backing Lee in a runoff primary that ensued between Lee and another Tea Party candidate, Tim Bridgewater.)

Colorado: Ken Buck v. Michael Bennet. That Ken Buck survived a gaffe-ridden primary against Republican establishment candidate Jane Norton, the former lieutenant governor -- even after he said Coloradans should vote for him "because I do not wear high heels" -- should tell you something of the mood of Republican voters in Colorado.

Buck has gone on to compare gay people to alcoholics, and to confirm his place in the GOP's forced-pregnancy caucus. (Like Sharron Angle and Rand Paul, Buck opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest.)

DeMint was one of Buck's earlier supporters, endorsing the former federal prosecutor at a July event emceed by Tom Tancredo, the Constitution Party candidate for governor who is running a surprisingly close race against Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, having all but knocked the Republican candidate, Dan Maes, out of contention. Tancredo made waves at the Tea Party Nation convention in Memphis earlier this year when he called for the reinstatement of literacy tests for voter registration, a device that was used for decades to keep African Americans from voting. (Tancredo is virulently anti-immigrant.)

The Senate Conservatives Fund has spent $710,000, including independent expenditures on Buck's behalf, according to its most recent filings. Rove's American Crossroads has spent nearly $6 million (including independent expenditures) on Buck's behalf, while Crossroads GPS has hashed out $213,000 in independent expenditures against Buck's opponent, Michael Bennet. Silver ranks Bennet's chances of losing to Buck at 62 percent.

Pennsylvania: Pat Toomey v. Joe Sestak. Call it an insurgent smack-down. Former Congressman Pat Toomey's threatened challenge to Arlen Specter in the Republican primary sent the longtime senator fleeing to the Democrats for cover. Then Rep. Joe Sestak took on Specter in the Democratic primary, and won. Having served as president of the ruthlessly anti-regulatory Club for Growth from 2005-2009, Toomey had a ready spigot of dollars to fuel his Senate bid; so far, his former employer has forked over $2.7 million on Toomey's behalf, largely for independent expenditures for ads against Sestak.

Toomey got an assist from Americans for Prosperity as well; he keynoted the banquet, heavily populated with local AFP activists, at the group's 2009 RightOnline conference -- the same conference at which another former Club for Growth president, Stephen Moore, spoke. Moore is now in the employ of Rupert Murdoch as a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board. Toomey has also enjoyed the support of DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund to the tune of $228,000, including independent expenditures.

Silver gives Toomey a 92-percent chance of taking Arlen Specter's seat away from the Dems, even though the race remains a tossup.

Alaska: Joe Miller v. Scott McAdams v. Lisa Murkowski. This one's a real wild card, but Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight sees a likely Republican win for Tea Partier Joe Miller, giving the GOP only a 5-percent chance of losing the seat. But it may take weeks for the score to be settled, due to a write-in campaign for the now-independent Lisa Murkowski, the sitting senator who was upended in her primary by the insurgent Miller, who secured the nomination with a flood of cash from Tea Party Express.

In recent weeks, Miller's campaign has been plagued with trouble; most notably, Miller's security detail handcuffed a reporter who asked the candidate an unfriendly question. The reporter asked why Miller failed to disclose, as reported by AP, that he was "nearly fired for using government computers in a failed effort to oust the state GOP chairman in 2008," according to a former borough mayor in Fairbanks, where Miller worked as a government attorney.

Miller enjoys the support of Sarah Palin (who has been on the warpath against local media for their apparent unfriendliness to Miller) in something of a proxy war against Murkowski, with whom Palin has had testy relations for years. Democrat Scott McAdams was never considered to have much of a chance in this race.

DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund has funded $253,000 in independent expenditures on Miller's behalf, according to its latest filing. Tea Party Express has poured $662,000 in independent expenditures made on Miller's behalf into the race.
 

For more of AlterNet's reporting on the Tea Party movement, check out our new anthology,Dangerous Brew: Exposing the Tea Party's Agenda to Take Over America, edited by Don Hazen and Adele M. Stan.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.