The Washington Post

The tea party is the Republican Party’s best friend. And that’s the problem.

Is "tea party candidate" a toxic label or a badge of honor? It depends on who you ask.

Therein lies the conundrum for the Republican Party.

By nearly 2-1, Republicans say a candidate's tea party affiliation makes it more likely they will vote for them, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. But by about the same margin, the broader pool of Americans is less likely to vote for that candidate.

In short, it's generally a good idea for GOP candidates to embrace the tea party in a primary. But in swing districts and states, it's typically a bad one to do it -- or at least to do it too much -- in the general election.

That makes for a tricky proposition. And it's a dynamic that explains why the Republican Party in numerous races has nominated tea party candidates who played well in primaries but fell flat in the general election (See Mourdock, Richard and Cuccinelli, Ken.)

Tea party-friendly Republicans can argue the data suggest that candidates who embrace the movement can rely on stronger enthusiasm from the party's conservative base in the general election. But such support would come at a cost.

The poll shows that independents are about as hostile toward tea party candidates as the rest of the electorate, with 34 percent saying it would make them less likely to support them, compared with only 15 percent who said it would make them more likely to vote for those candidates. Democrats, unsurprisingly, show virtually no warmth toward tea party candidates.

So it's not difficult to understand why Democratic candidates and strategists try in race after race to tether Republican candidates to the tea party any time they can.

"Republicans’ Tea Party Civil War is on full display in Texas’ 23rd Congressional District," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) in response to Tuesday's election results, which triggered a runoff in the swing 23rd congressional district.

Republican candidates will continue to face a delicate balancing act in 2014. If they thumb their nose at the tea party, they risk being dismissed in the primary. But going full bore with support can expose them in the general election.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.



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