Tea party could add to Republicans' numbers in Congress but shake up their unity

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; A02

News flash (not): All over the country, tea-party-backed candidates are winning.

Ophthalmologist Rand Paul's sweeping victory in Kentucky's Senate primary was the flagship "W" for the nascent movement. But Idaho state Rep. Raul Labrador's win last Tuesday in a House primary and the rapid rise of former Nevada assemblywoman Sharron Angle in that state's Senate race signal that the movement is backing up its big talk with action. (Most neutral observers think Angle will win the primary on June 8.)

While that story line has received lots of ink and air time since Paul's victory on May 18, significantly less attention has been paid to the "What now?" element of the Paul and Labrador wins. As in: What happens if the next Senate includes such names as Paul, Angle and Ken Buck -- the Weld County prosecutor who is running in Colorado?

What we know: If any or all of the tea party candidates are elected this fall, they will join a broadened group of Republican senators. Currently holding 41 seats, the GOP is well positioned to win seats being vacated by Democrats in North Dakota, Delaware, Illinois and Indiana. Most neutral observers expect the GOP to gain at least four seats in November; eight seats is generally regarded as the ceiling.

Those likely gains would seem to be good news for the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell (Ky.). But the prospects of Paul, Angle and other "true believers" in the Senate will almost certainly make it more difficult for McConnell to assert the rigid voting discipline that GOP strategists credit with bringing Republicans back from the brink of political extinction over the past 18 months.

"It's hard to imagine, if elected, they could be 'controlled' by Mitch McConnell or anyone else," Republican strategist John Weaver said of the tea party candidates. "And perhaps that isn't a bad thing. Control and moving away from party orthodoxy on spending issues and competence is what gave impetus to the tea party movement."

Already there is evidence of the culture clash between tea-party-backed candidates and the Republican establishment. Paul's questioning of certain elements of the 1964 Civil Rights Act stoked a national controversy and left many GOP strategists worried about whether he might cost them what should be a likely victory, given the conservative nature of the Bluegrass State. (In McConnell's defense, one of his -- unstated -- reasons for backing Paul's primary opponent was the belief that some of Paul's views could be painted by Democrats as outside the mainstream.)

In the wake of that controversy, however, national operatives pronounced themselves pleased that Paul's consulting team understood the error and pledged not to repeat it. (Paul did not, however, ship out the lesser-known consultants who helped get him the GOP nod, choosing instead to simply reshuffle roles and install Jesse Benton -- a top aide in the 2008 Republican presidential campaign of Paul's father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas -- as campaign manager.)

Labrador, who upset Iraq war veteran Vaughn Ward in the May 25 primary in the Gem State, has been more willing to bend to the wishes of the national party and plans to overhaul his staff and probably add several established consultant types. "I think they can be helpful," Labrador said of Washington-based operatives. "Obviously, we're going to stick to Idaho themes and an Idaho message."

It's worth noting that GOP moderates -- a dying breed in recent years -- are likely to get reinforcements of their own. Reps. Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Mike Castle (Del.) built voting records in the House that placed them squarely at the center of that chamber, and it's hard to see much changing if they are elected to the Senate. They would join the likes of Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and, increasingly, Scott Brown of Massachusetts in forming a legitimate -- and powerful -- moderate wing in the world's greatest deliberative body.

"The role of 'moderates' will face extinction," predicted one leading GOP moderate, referring to the impact of Paul and other tea partiers being elected.

There are still plenty of establishment Republicans who think talk of a tea party takeover is overblown. Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman, said he is "deeply skeptical that tea party candidates will live up to the hype or emerge as an effective political force in elected positions." He added that he did "expect that at least some of them will get elected to office."

If a Mr. Paul or a Ms. Angle does come to Washington, it's almost a problem that McConnell and the Republican leadership would like to have, because it will mean more GOP seats. But remember that the last day of the 2010 campaign marks the first day of the 2012 presidential race, and the more tea party candidates elected to the Senate and House on Nov. 2, the more hue and cry there will be from like-minded activists to choose someone of (and for) the movement as the GOP nominee.

Staff writer Aaron Blake contributed to this column.

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