Republican candidates scramble to bring Tea Party into GOP fold

Republican candidates scramble to bring Tea Party into GOP fold

Republican candidates and party officials are trying to lure Tea Party activists into the fold in order to stave off a splintering of the conservative base ahead of the midterm elections.

The Republican National Committee is scrambling to open field offices in targeted states as part of its “Delaware to Hawaii” (D2H) grassroots outreach program.

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In Nevada, the Clark County Republican Party is opening a phone bank in Las Vegas later this week specifically for Tea Party members to conduct voter outreach, party officials said.

And from Tennessee to Arizona, Republican candidates are turning up at Tea Party-sponsored events to rail against government spending.

The debate over healthcare and the stimulus program galvanized conservative activists to become politically active much earlier this cycle.

“I think the RNC should be talking about those issues and making sure that the Tea Party folks know they have a home at the Republican Party,” said Chip Saltsman, a Republican consultant who ran for the RNC chairmanship last year.

Observers note that the lack of a robust party infrastructure to capture the Tea Party’s energy could hamper the GOP’s chances in November. Democrats don’t have fond memories of the 2004 cycle, when groups such as America Coming Together (ACT) and MoveOn.org drained money and volunteers away from Democratic campaigns. The liberal groups worked to defeat President George W. Bush and other Republican candidates, but they frequently duplicated the party efforts and were ultimately unsuccessful.

“One of the reasons why you’re seeing such an aggressive outreach from Republicans to the Tea Parties is a lot if it is being able to control and direct the movement,” said Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic consultant. “It’s very hard to have a sort of smart run, sort of scientific grassroots operation if you’ve got lots of disparate groups out there doing their own stuff.”

But Tea Party activists say they’re reluctant to join a party they view as complicit in the government spending that led to the growth of the deficit.

“This was not a Republican movement and as the party tries to say, ‘Oh, we’re grassroots,’ they’re not acting that way,” said Ned Barnett, a Nevada-based consultant with the group Tea Party Express. “More or less, we’re going to do our own thing.”

Others say they plan to work with the GOP, but only if it serves their interests.

“The Republican Party has tried to tap into us as often as possible and we’re just not really interested in that conversation,” said Eric Odom, who runs the Tea Party-affiliated Liberty First PAC. “What we’re looking at is, What tools do they have to offer, and how can we use them to our advantage?”

Odom said his group is opposing Sen. John McCainJohn McCainRepublicans give Trump's budget the cold shoulder Overnight Defense: Trump budget gets thumbs down from hawks | UK raises threat level after Manchester attack | Paul to force vote on 0B Saudi arms deal Five takeaways from a busy day of Russia hearings MORE’s (R-Ariz.) reelection and plans to coordinate a volunteer effort against him. But some polls have shown that without McCain on the ticket, the GOP would have a harder chance of holding the Arizona Senate seat.

Schale said that’s just one example of where the group could cause problems for Republicans.

“There are clearly going to be places in 2010 where the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party don’t necessarily share the same goals,” Schale said.

Saltsman admits that the movement is problematic for some Republican incumbents.

“If your first name is Congressman or Senator, you have a little bit more of a challenge” reaching out to the Tea Party, Saltsman said. “If you’re running for the first time, and you’re kind of an outsider, it’s a little bit different. The folks who are having problems are the long-term incumbents that have been there.”

But he pointed to the history of the Reform Party in the 1990s as an example of how conservative activists eventually come home to the GOP.

“Look what happened in the Reform Party in ’92,” he said. “They had a leader in Ross Perot, they had an issue, which was spending and deficit reduction, and then the Republicans captured that and took it to ’94 and then captured both chambers.”

The GOP and the Tea Party share the same goal, he added.

“A lot of your Tea Party energy is Republican Party base voters,” Saltsman said. “What I’m seeing out there is an increased attendance at Republican dinners, not only in Tennessee but in South Carolina and a few other places.”

In some cases, the Tea Party is superseding the local GOP organization.

“In certain parts where the Tea Party organization is stronger, you may not see the county parties growing as hard but they still attend the dinners and they still attend the activities and they still support the candidates,” Saltsman said.