Has the tea party become a GOP liability?

at 06:30 AM ET, 04/06/2012

The tea party may have won Republicans the House of Representatives in 2010.

In 2012, it’s looking like it could help Democrats retain the White House.

The tea party movement, now nearly three years old, has fallen out of favor with Americans. And Democrats are prepared to use it against Republicans in the 2012 election.

A recent Fox News poll showed just 30 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the tea party, compared to 51 percent who viewed it unfavorably.

A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll may be more illustrative, though. It showed Americans were more evenly split on the tea party, with 44 percent supporting it and 43 percent opposing it. But just 15 percent of Americans supported the tea party “strongly,” while many more – 26 percent – were “strongly” opposed to it.

That suggests opposition to the tea party is more strident than the tea party itself, which means the movement may be doing the GOP more harm than good.

The numbers are similar to the ones we saw during the health care debate, when both sides had about the same number of supporters, but the opponents were much more avid. And that issue, undoubtedly, benefitted the GOP.

In addition, the fervor and enthusiasm spurred by the tea party in 2010 appears to have dissipated, with no major tea party rallies taking place this year and fewer Republican candidates latching on to the label. On the presidential campaign trail, the tea party is rarely mentioned.

In contrast, Democrats are actually starting to wield the tea party label as a tool in their campaigns.

“I’m Bill Pascrell, and this is why I’m running: To stop the tea party,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) says in a new ad.

Pascrell faces a primary with fellow Democratic Rep. Steve Rothman after their districts were merged by redistricting. The tea party is also being used against in a major way against Reps. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) and Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.), two top tea partiers in tough districts for the GOP, and was used in ads run by special election-winning Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) earlier this year.

Democrats say the issue works for them as they continue to define a Republican Party whose brand is already struggling.

“It’s no longer viewed as a populist, grassroots organization, but a dangerous group with extremist views that don’t reflect the mainstream values of America’s middle class,” said Democratic media strategist John Lapp. “The Republican establishment allowed the inmates to run the asylum in 2010. And now they’re paying the price electorally.”

The tea party was mostly a blessing for Republicans in 2010. Some less-electable tea party candidates beat Republican establishment candidates in primaries and went on to defeat in the general election. But on the whole, the tea party spurred enthusiasm against President Obama and helped Republicans overcome an emerging problem with their own brand – a problem that persists until today. The Washington Post/ABC poll showed just 40 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the GOP, a new low.

Some Republicans, who were granted anonymity to speak privately about the party’s strategy, acknowledged that some Republicans who latched on to the tea party in 2010 will have to take care not to identify too closely with it in 2012.

One noted that, even in 2010, tea party-focused candidates like Nevada GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle paid a price for their ties to the movement.

“As a Republican candidate, if you can effectively tell your story and establish your own ‘brand,’ then you will be fine,” said the strategist. “However, if you play into that narrative – think Sharron Angle – then you will find yourself in trouble. But that is true for any candidate, tea party-affiliated or not.”

Other Republicans say the tea party’s decline is largely due to what made it such a powerful force to begin with: a grassroots emphasis and lack of infrastructure.

“Some of the negatives come out of the fact that there isn’t anyone defending the Tea Party as a political party,” said GOP strategist Chris LaCivita. “They have as many factions as they do members, and speaking behind a cohesive central message is foreign to who they are, not only as a ‘party,’ but what they believe in.”

The question from here is whether the Democrats are simply going to use the anti-tea party strategy in primaries with other Democrats — where it makes a lot of sense — or in the general election in swing districts.

Early on, the strategy has been more popular in Democratic primaries and Democratic-leaning districts, but Democrats say the issue travels well.

The question is whether its just a fundraising ploy, or one that will actually move independent voters into the Democratic column in 2012.

GOP strategist Brian Donahue said the Democrats’ strategy is “old hat” and that Democrats will always use right-wing groups to jazz up the base. And because the movement isn’t front-and-center anymore, it won’t matter as much come election time.

“The issues initially associated with the tea party movement have become more broadly embraced by the electorate at-large, making the tea party less relevant than in 2010,” Donahue said.

There’s no question that’s true, but even if it’s still a little relevant, it could help Democrats in branding Republicans who rode the tea party wave just two short years ago.

Murkowski accuses fellow GOPers of ‘attack on women’: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) just handed Democrats a gift.

In comments recorded by a local newspaper, Murkowski criticizes her fellow Republicans on the issue of women’s rights, saying they weren’t quick enough to denounce Rush Limbaugh for his “slut” comments and that they’ve handled the issue of contraception poorly.

“To have those kind of slurs against a woman ... you had candidates who want to be our president not say, ‘That’s wrong. That’s offensive,’” said Murkowski, who favors abortion rights. “They did not condemn the rhetoric.”

Murkowski added, of the GOP’s response to the contraception controversy: “It makes no sense to make this attack on women. If you don’t feel this is an attack, you need to go home and talk to your wife and your daughters.”

Ouch. These are the kind of comments that will make this issue even tougher for the GOP to shake.

The problem with Santorum’s delegate math: On Thursday, Rick Santorum’s campaign, for the second time this year, tried to argue that the GOP delegate race is closer than it appears.

But at least one part of their case leaves something — nay, plenty — to be desired.

In a memo, Santorum delegate specialist John Yob argues that “Texas is going winner take all,” referring to a movement spurred by Santorum supporters in the state that would change the state from proportional to winner take all and potentially help Santorum win more delegates.

The problem is that it won’t happen.

As MSNBC points out, the change would require a two-thirds vote of the state GOP central committee and the approval of the Republican National Committee.

The idea that both two-thirds of Texas Republicans and the RNC would allow a late change that could throw the GOP presidential race into doubt with a last-minute gambit is wishful thinking at best, and delusional at worst.

And, perhaps most important, the RNC says it’s not happening.

“A change at this point would require a waiver,” said RNC spokesman Sean Spicer. “There is no basis for a waiver. Texas will remain a proportional state.”

Fixbits:

Obama gets some political cover from an unlikely source: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)

The health care think tank founded by Newt Gingrich has filed for bankruptcy.

Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate Eric Hovde launches his first TV ad.

Former Massachusetts state senator and lieutenant governor nominee Richard Tisei (R) raised $350,000 in the first quarter for his campaign against Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.). Tisei will also get a fundraising boost from former RNC chairman Ken Mehlman, who like Tisei is a gay Republican, on April 12.

Must-reads:

Romney using ethics exception to limit disclosure of Bain holdings” — Tom Hamburger, Washington Post

How Angus King could swing Senate” — Manu Raju, Politico

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