- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2010

Girding for their midterm election battles, Tea Party activists would be smart not to be doctrinaire about who gets their backing. In plenty of America’s purple and blue states, pragmatic conservatives have a greater chance of winning than pie-in-the sky ideologues. And it is winning in these elections that could turn a major defeat for Democrats in November’s elections into the rout that returns both the House and the Senate to Republican hands.

It seems a modest proposal: A man who stands with you 75 percent of the time is better than a man who stands with you 10 percent of the time. Yet, too many Tea Party purists argue that a RINO (Republican in name only) is no better than a Democrat who makes no pretenses about his ideology. This is simply not true.

Most RINO-like members vote with their party far more often than not. And when Republicans hold the majority, moderates provide a crucial buffer for overcoming parliamentary hurdles to conservative proposals.

But the pendulum swings both ways, and Republican leaders must tap into the enthusiasm and organizing force of Tea Partiers. Scanning the field of eligible politicos, there are several fresh faces across the country that both party faithful and Tea Party activists should throw their muscle behind to help bring the GOP out of the woodshed and into legislative relevance.

Republican candidate Shawn Duffy, 38, is a David running against Goliath Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat. Voters previously favored the spoils associated with Mr. Obey’s perch atop the House Appropriations Committee, but this incumbent since 1969 should face a groundswell from conservatives fed up with unwieldy federal spending. A county district attorney, Mr. Duffy is a father of five who wants to reduce the marginal tax rate on individuals and small businesses and expand the per-child tax credit.

Montgomery, Ala., councilwoman Martha Roby, 33, has seen her coffers swell, thanks to endorsements by national party leaders, though she lags behind Rep. Bobby Bright, Alabama Democrat, by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. On the council, she backed strong immigration enforcement and an anti-tax approach to fiscal reforms. Mrs. Roby is the only woman among the top tier of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program to support rising GOP challengers. Mrs. Roby faces an intraparty challenge from Rick Barber, a pool hall owner, who has courted Tea Party voters, but has badmouthed Republican leaders in his over-the-top effort to paint himself as anti-establishment.

Republican Morgan Philpot, a former state representative seeking to topple Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah Democrat, needs help from Tea Party activists in a district where voters backed the incumbent 2-to-1 in 2008. For a state that is among the reddest in the union, Mr. Philpot’s solidly conservative platform should resonate with voters who take a personal liking to Mr. Matheson, but may be unaware of his liberal voting record. For example, Mr. Matheson scored just 36 with the American Conservative Union in 2008, compared with Utah Republicans Rep. Rob Bishop (100), and Sens. Robert F. Bennett (64) and Orrin G. Hatch (80).

Bronze Star recipient Steve Stivers narrowly lost in 2008 to freshman Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy, Ohio Democrat, and he’s seeking success in 2010. After commanding some 400 troops and contractors during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Mr. Stivers won a seat in the state Senate and aggressively opposes a plan by Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland to fritter away $400 million on a slow train project called the 3C Transportation Corridor.

Adam Kinzinger, 31, a decorated special-operations pilot who flew missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, easily won the Republican primary by more than 19,000 votes in his bid to defeat freshman Rep. Debbie Halvorson, Illinois Democrat. At age 20, Mr. Kinzinger waged a successful campaign against a 12-year Democratic incumbent for the local county board. Mr. Kinzinger’s raised just over half a million dollars, lagging behind Mrs. Halvorson’s $1.2 million this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

As the Supreme Court recently ruled, campaign contributions are speech, and those profiting from Democratic-led federal spending growth are speaking overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats. Republicans fill just six of the top 20 cash-on-hand spots for House and Senate candidates. But money isn’t everything, as the Massachusetts Senate race showed. Tea Partiers can help bridge this money gap.

Freshman Rep. Aaron Schock, Illinois Republican, gives sound advice to these fresh faces on engaging the Tea Party crowd.

“I’m not suggesting that you let the Tea Party groups run your campaign,” said Mr. Schock, who bucked conventional wisdom by winning at age 27. “But if you are a Scott Brown Republican or a [moderate Illinois Senate candidate Rep. Mark Steven Kirk Republican], you’re going to need the Tea Party rolling in your district.”

Indeed, the process should be a collaborative one.

“If you’re proactive, if you don’t hide,” Mr. Schock continued, “if you don’t try to avoid them, but rather engage them about who and what they are and where you stand on the issues, more often than not, they will back Republicans.”

Massachusetts showed that Tea Partiers learned from last year’s debacle with Dede Scozzafava, the Republican nominee in New York in a special House election, who dropped out because of pressure from Tea Partiers enraptured with Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. That seat ultimately went to Democratic Rep. Bill Owens, making life easier for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This fall, smart Tea Partiers won’t make the same mistake.

Carrie Sheffield is a former Washington Times editorial board member and is a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.