Bloomberg News

Tea Party Cold to U.S. Presidential Race Sets Sights on Congress

March 09, 2012

Tea Party supporters at a Republican debate in Orlando, Florida. Photograph: St. Petersburg Times/ZUMAPRESS.com

Tea Party supporters at a Republican debate in Orlando, Florida. Photograph: St. Petersburg Times/ZUMAPRESS.com

Republican U.S. Representative Roscoe Bartlett boasts that he voted against all of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plans and was an early member of the House Tea Party Caucus. That’s not good enough for other anti-spending Republicans back home.

The Maryland (BEESMD) congressman faces at least seven primary election challengers, some claiming Tea Party support, after he voted last August to raise the U.S. debt ceiling.

Bartlett said he’s a “little concerned” that the Tea Party may have become “too much purists.” The debt increase was embedded in a bigger bill, he said in an interview. “I voted for it for the first time ever.”

With no clear Tea Party favorite in the Republican presidential race, the limited-government movement is pushing candidates for other elected offices. While many of the races are in safe Republican areas, others may drain party resources in districts, like Bartlett’s, where Democrats have a chance to win, said Michael McDonald, assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

“The Republicans had a very decent chance to control the U.S. Senate in 2010 but for the Tea Party,” said McDonald, who studies voter turnout. Tea Party candidates Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada won primaries, then lost the general election to Democrats Christopher Coons and Harry Reid.

House Control

It’s eight months until the November elections and much will depend on the economy. The nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report projects Democrats will gain five to 12 seats, short of the 25 needed to take the House from Republicans. Democrats control the Senate 53-47.

Newcomers, if they gain momentum, may put as many as six House Republican seats in play, almost one-fourth the number Democrats need to take control. The challengers are targeting members who voted to raise the debt limit and for federal spending bills that did little to trim the deficit.

“Tea Party claims first scalp,” said the Redstate.com website after Tea Party favorite Brad Wenstrup defeated three- term Republican Representative Jean Schmidt in Ohio’s March 6 primary. She had voted for the debt-ceiling increase.

The number of intra-party challengers is “more than you’d expect,” said Christina Botteri, a founding member of the National Tea Party Federation, a coalition of local and regional groups.

Club for Growth

In California (BEESCA)’s 50th district, Representative Brian Bilbray is being labeled a “Republican in Name Only” by primary challenger John Stahl, a former semiconductor executive.

In Pennsylvania, the Club for Growth, which supports limited government, is helping finance an effort by former Senate aide Evan Feinberg to defeat Representative Tim Murphy in Pittsburgh’s suburbs. Ohio Representative Robert Gibbs is under fire from businessman and pastor Hombre Liggett for voting to raise the nation’s borrowing limit and backing Republican House Speaker John Boehner on other issues.

“The worst offenders, you’ll see us challenge as a shot across the bow to other guys that ‘if you vote this way you could get challenged,’” said Brendan Steinhauser, director of campaigns for FreedomWorks, the Tea Party-aligned group led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. “It’s a healthy thing to keep them accountable.”

‘Hail Mary’

Still, of all the announced primary challengers to Republicans, only two had more than $100,000 in cash on hand by Dec. 31, according to the National Republican Congressional Committee. Stahl had $302,035 for his campaign against Bilbray, who had $561,692, the committee reported. Weston Wamp had $285,142 for his challenge to Tennessee Representative Chuck Fleischmann, with $617,323.

The rush of candidates magnifies competing philosophies.

“You have a lot of people always going for the Hail Mary, I want to cut the deficit now. Others of us see that we’re moving the football down the field,” said Scott Hagerstrom, a Tea Party activist in Michigan, where at least two Republican lawmakers, Fred Upton and Tim Walberg, face primary challenges.

The Walberg, Gibbs and Bilbray races are listed as competitive by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which considers Schmidt and Fleischmann’s districts to be solid Republican.

Upton’s district in western Michigan supported Obama by a 10-point margin in 2008. A Feinberg victory in Murphy’s Pennsylvania district may help hand it to Democrats, said McDonald of George Mason University.

Movement’s 2009 Start

The anti-spending Tea Party movement began in 2009, drawing on the spirit of the Boston Tea Party, a protest by colonists against a British tax on tea in 1773. It has evolved from public protests into a campaign to penetrate state and local government, according to its leaders.

“Many of these folks have come to a conclusion that standing on a street corner is a waste of their time,” said Botteri. “They’re getting deeply involved in making deep changes in the local and state level.”

In Michigan, Hagerstrom estimated the number of Tea Party activists has grown to 68,000 from 50,000 a year ago.

“You have people who are upset with Boehner and people who are in lockstep with Boehner,” said Hagerstrom, state director of Americans for Prosperity in East Lansing.

Several members of the House Tea Party Caucus voted with Boehner of Ohio on Aug. 1 to raise the federal debt ceiling by $2.1 trillion, including Bartlett, 85, in Maryland, Schmidt in Ohio and freshmen members Stephen Fincher of Tennessee and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

‘The Final Straw’

Bartlett’s debt-ceiling vote “was kind of the final straw and suggested that the congressman, even if he were to run for re-election, was out of touch with the wishes of voters,” said Don Murphy, spokesman for Maryland state Senator David Brinkley, who is challenging Bartlett in the April 3 primary.

First elected in 1992, Bartlett has won by solid margins, including by 61 percent in 2010. Maryland’s new redistricting map pushed the boundaries into more Democratic territory in Montgomery County, a Washington suburb, which will give Democrats a better chance of beating him.

The House Republican campaign arm has added Bartlett and Gibbs to their main incumbent-protection program, called the “Patriot Program,” signaling their vulnerability in a general election.

“The debt-limit vote is the best example of taking a hard look at what would happen if they didn’t raise the debt ceiling” -- a government default, said Jessica Taylor, a senior analyst at the Rothenberg Political Report. “Several members came up here and had to adjust to the realities.”

The Tea Party is at a critical juncture, said McDonald. “The Tea Party is successful right now because they’re affiliated with the Republican Party.”

“If they continue to go down this path of ideological purity, it makes them a minor political party,” much like the Libertarian or Green parties, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Heidi Przybyla in Washington at hprzybyla@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net


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