Don’t count the tea party out

On the eve of his victory over Senate icon Richard Lugar, Indiana conservative Richard Mourdock paraphrased a Mark Twain comment by noting that reports of the tea party’s death “have been greatly exaggerated.”

Just as several factors prompted Lugar’s loss, so too have a number of other events confirmed the continuing influence of the GOP’s uncompromising conservative faction despite its failure to sidetrack Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

On the state level, fallout from Republican-engineered congressional redistricting is likely to produce an even greater partisan divide in the House. Nationally, freshmen tea party House members are pressing to scrap last year’s deficit reduction plan and force more cuts in highway and other transportation programs.

Besides, forthcoming GOP primaries in Texas and other states pit tea party insurgents against establishment candidates in their continuing effort to push Senate Republicans to the right to match what has occurred in the House.

To the extent these efforts strengthen the tea party influence among congressional Republicans, it could hamper Romney if the presumptive GOP nominee wins the White House and seeks to reach out to Democrats in confronting major national issues.

Hard-core conservatives

If Mourdock wins Indiana’s Senate seat — and he faces a potentially stiff Democratic challenge — he would join a growing number of hard-core conservatives, led by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, that also includes Utah’s Mike Lee, Kansas’ Jerry Moran and Kentucky’s Rand Paul.

Others could include Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, who is seeking to overcome Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the May 29 GOP primary; former Utah state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who qualified at the state convention to face Sen. Orrin Hatch in a June 26 primary; and possible Senate primary victors in Arizona and Missouri.

Meanwhile, tea party-backed House Republican freshmen responsible for last summer’s debt ceiling showdown have forced party leaders to threaten a replay later this year and to back a measure to undo the painfully constructed bipartisan deficit plan, minimizing defense spending cutbacks and increasing the burden on already hard-hit domestic programs.

It passed the House last week — despite 16 GOP defections and the fact that the Democratic-controlled Senate won’t even consider it.

In addition, the freshmen conservatives prevented House action on a Senate-passed bill to fund federal highway and transit programs. Instead, House leaders sent the bill to a Senate-House conference and included among House conferees a majority of freshmen, reflecting awareness of who holds the key to passing any bill.

While it’s unclear if Republicans will keep their present House majority, there are signs the tone of next year’s congressional session may be affected by last year’s influx of hard-core GOP conservatives into state legislatures.

In two Democratic primaries in Pennsylvania House districts redrawn by the GOP, more liberal Democratic incumbents defeated more centrist colleagues in a result Republicans hope will make them more vulnerable to Republican rivals in November. Even if they win, the GOP will have eliminated the two more centrist Democrats.

Republican gains

Similarly, last week’s North Carolina primaries indicated Republican gains from reapportionment that forced two centrist Democrats to retire and left a third facing an uphill race.

The House is already short on centrists, and these primaries indicate the number will decline still further, leaving an even more partisan House.

Senate Republicans, in contrast with their House counterparts, have been more open to compromises with the Democrats. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, for example, helped broker the December 2010 deal extending both the Bush tax cuts, which Republicans wanted, and unemployment benefits, which the Democrats sought.

But the election of additional tea party senators may keep the leadership from doing that. Besides McConnell, that could complicate the future of Texas Sen. John Cornyn, favored to become the Kentucky senator’s top deputy next year,

Cruz signaled that when he told The Dallas Morning News he won’t join his GOP rivals in committing to back Cornyn for the No. 2. job if he wins the Senate seat, despite his fellow Texan’s solidly conservative record.

If tea party adherents are reluctant to back a committed conservative like Cornyn, it’s not hard to see them resisting any Romney initiatives they see as insufficiently adhering to their principles.

Clearly, the story of the GOP’s tea party flirtation is far from over.

Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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