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Reports of tea party’s demise are exaggerated

Friday, February 8, 2013

Once again, punditocracy reports of the tea party’s demise are premature.

If you want evidence, look at Sen. John Cornyn’s joining with fellow Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in voting against Secretary of State John Kerry’s confirmation, South Carolina Rep. Lindsey Graham’s vehement battle against the Obama administration on the Benghazi deaths and Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, or Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ retirement.

In the House, Speaker John Boehner seems to have retaken temporary control of his fractious Republican caucus from the tea party activists who forced the 2011 battle against raising the legal limit on the debt.

But most have solidified their hold on their seats. And the tea party continues to cast a shadow over many Senate Republicans, where its success in GOP primaries during the last two elections probably cost the party its chance to regain the majority.

Aggressive effort

With Republicans needing to gain six seats next year to win Senate control, the tea party’s aggressive effort to expand its Senate membership has prompted onetime George W. Bush political “architect” Karl Rove to form yet another fundraising group to steer big bucks to mainstream alternatives.

Already, the tea party folks have driven Chambliss into retirement by threatening to oppose him because he worked with Democrats to craft a bipartisan deficit reduction package.

The resulting GOP candidate will almost certainly be more conservative than Chambliss, though it’s too soon to know if that will jeopardize the GOP’s hold on the seat. First in: Rep. Paul Broun, President Obama’s most fervent critic in Georgia’s delegation.

In generally moderate Iowa, tea party activists are among those behind outspoken GOP conservative Rep. Steve King’s bid to replace retiring liberal Democrat Tom Harkin. But a new Public Policy Polling poll shows the more mainstream Rep. Tom Latham would be a stronger candidate against potential Democratic standard bearers.

Meanwhile, both Cornyn and Graham face re-election next year in states with highly conservative Republican parties, prompting them to act and vote with one eye on potential Republican opponents.

So too is the Senate’s GOP leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in a state where tea party activists helped elect Sen. Rand Paul in 2010 over a mainstream candidate. Though McConnell opposed Paul then, he has since embraced him and recently appeared jointly with him.

Graham looks in excellent shape for re-election, and polls show his rightward swerve over the last two years has diminished the likelihood of a tea party challenger.

But recent PPP polling, a Democratic-leaning firm with an excellent 2012 record, indicates both McConnell and Cornyn have potential weakness as they approach their re-election years.

The Texas poll showed voters gave Cornyn a slightly negative job performance, within the margin of error, but led several potential rivals with from 45 percent to 48 percent of the vote. Despite criticism from some tea party groups, it’s too early to know if the new No. 2 Senate Republican will face a significant challenge from his right.

But Cruz’s victory in last year’s Senate election underscored again how conservative the Texas GOP is.

Kentucky’s senator

In Kentucky, PPP said McConnell’s 55-37 negative job rating made him the country’s most unpopular senator. But because Kentucky tilts Republican in federal elections, he polled 46 percent to 48 percent against potential Democratic rivals and led by from 4 (against actress Ashley Judd) to 11 points.

Neither he nor Graham seems currently vulnerable in a primary, thanks to their more aggressive anti-Obama positions, such as Graham’s laser-like focus on the death of four Americans last September in Benghazi, Libya, and his sharp questioning last week of Hagel.

Interestingly, stories about Rove’s new organization seem to have fired up his conservative targets, ensuring more internal GOP warfare. But Rove was more successful in raising money in 2012 than in producing the desired results, and his targets are unlikely to be deterred.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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