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Some Democrats are welcoming the tea party phenomenon, saying Mr. Hoffman’s loss Tuesday is a harbinger of more divisions within the Republican Party that will drag the GOP farther from the political center.
“What we are seeing here is a fractured GOP in Senate races all over the country,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and point man for the party in the 2010 Senate races. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., campaigning for Mr. Owens in New York on Monday, made an open appeal to Republican moderates backing Mrs. Scozzafava to support the Democrat.
Until now, the loosely organized grass-roots activists have avoided getting involved in major campaigns and party politics, focusing their efforts on anti-tax rallies and providing much of the passion behind the raucous protests over health care reform at congressional town hall meetings in August.
Ironically, becoming involved in political campaigning and party organizing remains a divisive issue in some quarters of the tea party movement, which remains stubbornly independent of both the Republican and Democratic party establishments.
“In some of these tea party groups, members are split over whether they should or should not endorse candidates. Some believe it taints the movement by getting involved in politics as an organization,” said Joe Wierzbicki, political coordinator for the Tea Party Express.
The Tea Party Express is in the midst of its second cross-country bus tour, holding rallies in key districts that are expected to be future campaign battlegrounds.
“Others believe this is the whole purpose of what the tea party movement is about. For us, the only way to bring about change is at the ballot box, which is the reason we endorsed Doug Hoffman 3 1/2 weeks ago and contributed to his campaign,” Mr. Wierzbicki said.
There will be plenty of targets for tea party enthusiasts in the coming year.
In Florida, for example, tea party activists are becoming deeply involved in the Republican Senate primary campaign, in which former state House Speaker Marco Rubio has emerged as the insurgent conservative challenger to Gov. Charlie Crist, the moderate GOP front-runner.
“The next fight is clearly in Florida, where the primary pits an establishment, big-government Republican, Crist, against a young, principled conservative, Rubio,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks. “I think the tea party movement will prove again that grass-roots organization and hard work will overcome big bucks from the [National] Republican Senatorial Committee.”
Mr. Rubio has cut Mr. Crist’s 30-point lead in half and closed the fundraising gap, and is attracting support from some of the right’s biggest names, such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, as well as from the Club for Growth, the anti-tax Washington group that also strongly backed Mr. Hoffman in New York.
In California, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has said that Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who heads the party’s 2010 Senate efforts, urged her to run against Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Democrat incumbent, because he thinks California state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore would not be able to win the general election.
In response, conservative blogs led by RedState.com launched a fundraising drive on Mr. DeVore’s behalf. Mr. DeVore, who is labeling Mrs. Fiorina a “big-government liberal,” has pulled even with her in a recent poll of Republican primary voters.
Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson has received fundraising help from some of the most senior GOP senators, but his primary rival for the state’s open Senate seat, anti-tax activist Rand Paul, outraised him in the third quarter of 2009.
Mr. Paul, son of Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican and anti-tax firebrand, raised more than $1 million in the third quarter, compared with Mr. Grayson’s $643,000.
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