- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2011

Republicans, once ecstatic about the energy generated by the 2009 anti-spending tea party uprising, are growing increasingly uneasy about the impact in 2012 of a movement that seems beyond the control of anyone, including its own leaders.

“The nature of the tea party and liberty movement is that there really are very few, if any, authoritative spokespersons,” said Ryan Call, Colorado GOP chairman.

“The fact that the grass-roots movement is somewhat leaderless is one of its strengths, but it also makes the movement susceptible to individuals or groups co-opting the ‘tea party label in inappropriate and damaging ways, like we saw in the May 24 New York 26th [Congressional] District special election.”

In interviews with The Washington Times, Republicans said they see two problems ahead.

One is that Democrats benefit from fake tea party candidates siphoning crucial votes from a Republican candidate.

The other is the ongoing tendency of the Republican establishment to invite tea party rebellions by picking more-liberal candidates, such as Dede Scozzafava, who lost another Republican-leaning New York congressional district in a special election in 2009.

In last week’s New York election, Democrat Kathy Hochul upset Republican Jane Corwin, 47 percent to 43 percent.

Millionaire Jack Davis drained votes from Mrs. Corwin by spending $3 million of his own money to gather enough petition signatures to get himself on the ballot identified as the “tea party” candidate, despite a history of running as a Democrat and his liberal stances on spending and other key tea party issues.

Some Republican operatives blamed the confusion on the failure of local tea party groups to unite behind Mrs. Corwin and to expose Mr. Davis as a fake.

“The local Republican Party in that district should have reached out to tea party types to make sure Davis, who got 9 percent of the vote, didn’t get the traction he needed in order to get that 9 percent,” longtime Republican campaign consultant Kenny Klinge said.

Mr. Klinge predicted the tea party “will be more of hindrance than an asset in 2012 if the Republican leadership doesn’t reach out to the tea party.”

Rus Thompson, a New York tea party coordinator, said the organizations did unite to use their email lists to expose Mr. Davis as a fraud.

“But we don’t have any money to put out expensive mailers or run TV ads, and I was so frustrated with local news media that kept portraying Davis as the tea party candidate,” Mr. Thompson said.

But New York state GOP Chairman Ed Cox denied that.

“All the tea party groups were not united against Davis, and Davis suppressed some a portion of our vote that is concerned about jobs going abroad,” Mr. Cox said.

House Speaker John A. Boehner worsened matters, some Republican figures said, by failing to mention at a fundraising event in the district that Mrs. Corwin was the only tea-party-endorsed candidate and that Mr. Davis was not the real tea party candidate.

“Boehner was in town, but didnt tell the 500 people at the Corwin fundraiser she is endorsed by the tea party and is the real conservative in this race,” Mr. Thompson said.

Mr. Boehner’s office disputed that characterization, saying the speaker clearly dubbed Mrs. Corwin the “one conservative candidate” in the race.

And RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said the RNC did all it could, from “spending money and putting boots on the ground to making it clear to voters in the district that Davis was not the tea party-endorsed candidate — Corwin was.”

Others were blaming Mrs. Corwin’s own weakness as a candidate, noting that she sabotaged her appeal to the party base and independents alike by first backing, then backing away from, Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare partial-privatization plan.

“Ultimately, it was her that lost us the 26th District,” one GOP official said.

The problem lies in all of the above, some Republicans and tea party leaders say. Mr. Boehner didn’t mention the tea party because, thanks to its disorganized nature, there is always the risk that it could blow up in the Republicans’ face.

Some tea party leaders pin their hopes on the educational value of experience in avoiding Democratic shenanigans next year, even though the groups don’t have the financial means or discipline to fight off self-serving usurpers and Democratic saboteurs.

Andrew Ian Dodge, a Maine Tea Party Patriots leader, is “sure other jurisdictions will not be so daft to allow a lifelong Democrat who ran three times as a Democrat for the office to run as a tea party candidate,” referring to Mr. Davis.

Although Democrats will “will try to replicate the success of ‘NY26 where able, the tea party movement is getting wise to less-than-genuine usurpers, after some recent experiences,” Mr. Dodge said.

The Republican Party in some states, including New York, let county chairmen pick the special-election candidates, some of whom have proved to be philosophically inconsistent. In other cases, the state parties have to go with the available candidates, not the ones they wish they could have. All this opens Republicans to Democratic sabotage.

“Davis wanted to run as a Republican, but seven of our county chairs didn’t think he was a good candidate,” New York GOP Chairman Ed Cox told The Washington Times. “So they went with Jane Corwin.”

Many conservative Republicans hold on to the belief that its the candidate, rather than shenanigans by Democrats or disgruntled Republican mavericks, that wins or loses an election.

These Republicans say there’s no perfect defense against spoilers, but the Republicans invite trouble every time they engineer the selection of a candidate of uncertain philosophical persuasion instead of letting the party rank and file pick the nominee.

“As long as the party doesn’t hand-pick candidates or play favorites, there won’t be as much of a threat that you’ll get a spoiler,” says Amy Frederick, president of the 60-Plus Association. “The establishment vs. grass roots is still very much alive, and there is always a chance of a spoiler getting in, but ensuring that all factions had input into the candidate nominated by the GOP will minimize those third-party/spoiler candidates.”

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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