- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2011

The tea party movement that helped elect dozens of fiscal conservatives in 2010 to give Republicans control of the House is already mobilizing and recruiting candidates in a bid to take over the Senate next year as well.

With the 2012 electoral cycle just getting started, hopefuls backed by the tea party from Indiana and Texas to Virginia and Maine are testing the waters, targeting both vulnerable Democrats and incumbent Republicans seen as insufficiently willing to embrace the group’s strong anti-spending, anti-debt agenda.

In Indiana over the weekend, some 70 state tea party organizations met to unify under the coalition Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate and discuss a primary challenge to longtime moderate GOPSen. Richard G. Lugar.

“We’re not happy with Sen. Lugar’s progressive, liberal stance that has worsened over the years,” said Monica Boyer, president of the Kosciusko County-based tea party group Silent No More.

Indiana conservatives are particularly upset with Mr. Lugar, a six-term incumbent, over his votes for Obama-backed initiatives such as the START missile treaty with Russia and Dream Act legislation easing rules for some illegal immigrants. Despite the string of tea party primary challenges to moderate Republicans in the 2010 midterms, Mr. Lugar has made it clear in recent days that he will be running again.

“This is why we have taken a very early campaign stance of vigorous fundraising, vigorous campaigning, anticipating that that kind of a campaign might occur,” he told Bloomberg TV’s “Political Capital” show.

Political analysts say the tea party movement proved a mixed blessing for Republicans in 2010, providing much of the passion and ground support for GOP gains in Congress and the states.

Tea party-blessed candidates, including Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Florida’s Marco Rubio, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson and Utah’s Mike Lee, all won their Senate races. But many say the weakness and inexperience of other tea party favorites, notably Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, cost the Republicans an even bigger victory.

Ms. Boyer describes traveling to Capitol Hill last month to accept an invitation to meet with the 78-year-old Mr. Lugar to discuss his policies.

“I went down there in a snowstorm,” she recalled. “He explained why he voted like he did and said he would do it all again. No connection. It ended like the start of some football match, when you shake hands and say, ‘Game on.’”

Ms. Boyer said coalition members already are eyeing two potential candidates, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock and state Sen. Mike Delph.

Sal Russo, a GOP strategist and the force behind the California-based Tea Party Express, said Thursday his group was “very happy with the 2010 results,” but acknowledged having learned a few lessons to take into next year.

“We got into some races late,” said Mr. Russo, whose group provided late aid to Ms. O’Donnell to help her upset establishment-backed GOP Rep. Michael N. Castle in Delaware’s Republican primary. She then lost in the general election to Democrat Chris Coons.

Mr. Russo said that the group’s tax status prevented members from communicating with candidates. In the 2012 cycle, he added, tea party officials will “spend more time with candidates, getting to know them.”

But he added his group had no regrets about the 2010 candidates it backed and that he has already talked to candidates in five states in what he called “a target-rich environment” for Republicans.

In Texas, another establishment-vs.-tea party battle may be brewing over the open seat of retiring GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a prime backer of conservative insurgent candidates in 2010, wasted no time rejecting the Republican establishment’s reported choice of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, saying he preferred former Solicitor General Ted Cruz and former state Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams.

“This is a major development,” Mr. DeMint said of Mrs. Hutchison’s retirement. “It opens up a Senate seat in a strong Republican state, giving us another opportunity to elect a principled conservative.”

“We don’t endorse liberal or wishy-washy Republicans,” he added. “Michael is an outstanding conservative leader, and he will be at the very top of our list as we consider candidates for an endorsement.”

In Virginia, former GOP Sen. George Allen is considering a rematch with Sen. Jim Webb, the Democrat who narrowly ousted him in 2006. But Mr. Allen is already facing a challenger in his own party in Jamie Radtke, founder of the Richmond Tea Party. Though a challenge from the right on the conservative Mr. Allen was once considered unthinkable, he faces the same criticism as did some 2010 candidates did of being too much of a Washington insider.

In Maine, Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe is up for re-election in 2012. While still broadly popular in the state, she has angered many in her own party with her willingness to cross party lines, including her recent vote to end the military’s ban on gays serving in the military.

Judson Phillips, founder of the group Tea Party Nation has already labeled Mrs. Snowe a “RINO” — Republican in name only — and listed her as one of five GOP Senate incumbents the group will target in 2012. With 23 Democratic Senate seats on the ballot and just 10 Republican seats next year, Mr. Phillips said fiscal conservatives can stick to their principles and still win at the ballot box.

“The good news for 2012 is that so many liberals are up for re-election, Republicans are guaranteed control of the Senate, and we do not have to pinch our noses this time and support a RINO to prevent liberal control of the Senate,” Mr. Phillips said.

But while Maine tea party groups have talked about a primary challenge, no candidate has emerged so far.

Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, another Republican on Mr. Phillips’ list, is also expected to get a tea party challenge in the primary and already trails second-term Rep. Jason Chaffetz and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr. in a hypothetical primary, according to findings of a state-wide poll released last week.