In 2012 campaigns, spoilers from the Tea Party worry GOP

The Democrats’ upset victory in New York’s special election Tuesday shows that Tea Party candidates could prevent Republicans from winning the White House and Senate, GOP senators say. 

Political analysts interpret Kathy Hochul’s (D) surprise win as a flashing red signal that Medicare reforms that passed in Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R) House budget in March could cripple the GOP in the 2012 election.

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Some Republican senators, however, view the spoiler role Tea Party candidate Jack Davis played in that race with more alarm.

Tea Party activists say Davis was an “impostor candidate,” because he ran for office several times as a Democrat before claiming the Tea Party mantle. He still managed to win 8 percent of the vote, and Republicans claim he deprived Jane Corwin, the GOP nominee, of the win.

For Republican senators, it’s conjured the memory of H. Ross Perot splitting center-right voters in 1992 and 1996, ensuring the election and reelection of former President Clinton. Some worry third-party candidates could cause similar havoc in 2012.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a member of the Tea Party Caucus, said it’s likely a Tea Party presidential candidate would run in the 2012 general election if Republicans nominated a centrist to challenge President Obama.

“It’s a real danger if we nominate someone who is clearly moderate and not espousing conservative views — it’s a real danger,” said DeMint.

He said Republican presidential candidates should all endorse plans to cut Medicare spending significantly to address the program’s looming insolvency.

“What we need candidates to do is to endorse plans that will save Medicare; if they don’t like Ryan’s, they should have their own,” DeMint said.

Several GOP senators said there is a danger that Tea Party voters may defect to third-party candidates in next year’s general election.

“I think it’s a very real possibility,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who lost to a Tea Party candidate in the 2010 GOP primary but won in the general election. “We’ve seen it in many races, and I think the example in New York is just one of them. Whether or not we see it in the presidential level remains to be seen. But I don’t think we can count that out as a prospect.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, said the lesson the GOP should take away is that it needs to inspire its base.

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“The message to Republicans is you need to be more consistent with your platform and you need to excite the base, which is that 8 to 10 percent, maybe 15 percent, who are the Tea Party — they need to be convinced you believe in something,” Paul said. “If you don’t excite them, they’re going to defect and you’re going to lose all the elections.”

Adam Brandon, vice president of communications for FreedomWorks, a group that has worked extensively with Tea Party candidates and voters, said Tea Party candidates weren’t the only ones capable of playing spoiler roles next November. He argued that Murkowski was guilty of doing that when she ran as an independent write-in candidate in the 2010 general election in Alaska.

Nevertheless, Brandon acknowledged, Tea Party candidates could run in next year’s general election if voters aren’t happy with the GOP nominees.

“It’s a real threat and I don’t think anyone wants it because it’s not good for anyone,” he said of Tea Party candidates running as third-party challengers. “But we don’t care about Republicans getting elected. We want fiscal conservatives to get elected, and that’s going to be a messy process.”

Brandon said if Republicans nominated a candidate such as Mitt Romney, who signed into law the Massachusetts healthcare reform bill that contains similar provisions to Obama’s healthcare reform initiative, it could trigger a Ross Perot-type third-party candidacy.

“If you’re looking for the fertilizer for such a thing, I could see that happening,” Brandon said.

He emphasized that his group does not want to see a Tea Party candidate siphoning off conservative votes in a general election, but warned it’s a possibility.

Tea Party voters are already grumbling about the five GOP senators who voted this week against Ryan’s spending and Medicare reforms.

“While the Ryan plan may not be the perfect solution, it is certainly a good first step in getting spending under control,” said Scott D’Amboise, a candidate planning to rally Tea Party voters against Sen. Olympia Snowe in the 2012 Maine Republican primary. 

Snowe has raised concerns about drastic cuts to Medicare spending, noting that her home state has a high percentage of seniors. She dismissed Thursday’s vote on Ryan’s plan, which Senate Democrats scheduled, as “part of a cynical strategy by the majority to score political points.”

The political fallout, however, reminds Republican senators that allegiance between the GOP and the Tea Party is fragile. 

“I was glad that Tea Party activists for the most part expressed their energy in the Republican primaries and on behalf of Republican candidates in 2010,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “I hope they do it again in 2012.”

He said most Tea Party members in Tennessee have been happy to support GOP candidates, adding, “I hope it stays that way.”