Tea party looks for strength in numbers

Members hope to tip the Senate

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With polls showing the movement’s popularity sagging, tea party members from across the country are warning that anyone who thinks they are sleeping in 2012 is in for a rude awakening come Election Day, when they plan to pick up where they left off in 2010 by bolstering their voices for limited government on Capitol Hill.

The goal, they say, is simple: Reinforce their numbers in the House and elect enough “constitutional conservatives” to end the Democrats’ six-year reign over the Senate.

“The Senate is at a tipping point,” said Ted Cruz, a tea-party-backed candidate who is seeking the seat being vacated by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican.

“There are, right now, a handful of strong, free-market, constitutional conservatives, and they are vastly outnumbered — outnumbered by the Democrats and, unfortunately, they are outnumbered by a lot of Republicans in the Senate, as well,” he said. “If we can grow the numbers in 2012 to 10 or 12 or 15 strong, free-market, constitutional conservatives who are ready to stand up and fight — that will change the United States.”

In 2010, the grass-roots movement strongly pushed — depending on who’s counting — about 10 Senate candidates. The group delivered stunning victories in knocking off veteran Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah, in primaries. The menu of successful candidates included fresh-faced conservatives Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah and non-politicians such as Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

But the group also pushed candidates who could win Republican primaries but flopped in general-election races that political analysts say the party could have won with more seasoned or mainstream candidates — most notably Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware.

This time, tea partyers say, there are no liabilities on the field, just solid conservatives. Political observers tend to agree.

“Do I see ‘Christine O'Donnell‘ in this group? No, not yet,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, referring to the unsuccessful Republican nominee for Senate in Delaware. “I want to see how some of these folks do and whether there are any upsets, which her victory was.”

With that as the backdrop, the almost 3-year-old movement is fielding candidates in about eight Senate races. Again, tea partyers are targeting some lions of the establishment, notably Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, a moderate Republican who has served in the upper chamber since 1977. Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock is looking to knock off Mr. Lugar in the Republican primary.

Mr. Lugar is a foreign-policy giant, but tea partyers have labeled him a “RINO” (“Republican in name only”) because of, among other things, his support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and President Obama’s two appointees to the Supreme Court — Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010.

“It’s time for Richard Lugar to go home and retire and bake cookies with his grandchildren,” Amy Kremer, head of the Tea Party Express, said bluntly.

Ms. Duffy said that at this point in the campaign season Mr. Lugar is the “only incumbent who looks truly in danger because of his tea party opponent.”

Mr. Mourdock said that the incumbent has been “disrespectful” to the movement — Mr. Lugar raised the O’Donnell-Angle scenario in a CNN interview just last weekend — and has voted for “things they are against, which is the ever-growing and enlarging government.”

He also suggested that Mr. Lugar’s tendency toward bipartisanship has gotten in the way of good governance.

“I’m not interested in the collegiality,” Mr. Mourdock said. “I’m interested in making the right plans to save the economy, which is in fact to save the country.”

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