Senate hopefuls, veteran GOP leaders face Tea Party voters

Senate hopefuls, veteran GOP leaders face Tea Party voters

For years, Rep. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntHouse Republicans introduce legislation to give states 0 million for elections Frustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Pelosi to require masks on House floor MORE and former Rep. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanOvernight Defense: Pompeo pressed on move to pull troops from Germany | Panel abruptly scraps confirmation hearing | Trump meets family of slain soldier Pompeo, lawmakers tangle over Germany troop withdrawal Senate report says Russian oligarchs evading U.S. sanctions through big-ticket art purchases MORE touted their positions of influence in Republican leadership circles in Washington, D.C.

But now both are running for Senate seats and discovering their Washington résumés to be something of a liability at a time when the Tea Party and disaffected fiscal conservatives have new political power. 

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Blunt, who is running in a GOP primary in Missouri, and Portman, who is running in Ohio, have taken different approaches to explaining their years in Washington.

While Blunt has reached out to Tea Party activists, Portman has kept them at arm’s length so far.

“I know that he is making an effort, I have been seeing a lot of threads come through where he’s really reaching out to conservatives,” said Dr. Gina Loudon, a radio show host and Tea Party organizer based in St. Louis, in reference to Blunt.

“I see him trying to make inroads there,” she added. “I see people looking favorably at the fact that he’s reaching out.”

Rich Chrismer, a spokesman for Blunt’s campaign, said the candidate has tried to distinguish himself from inside-the-Beltway politicians by keeping close tabs on the Tea Party.

“Roy Blunt is doing something they’re not doing in Washington,” said Chrismer. “He’s listening to them and paying attention to their concerns. We’re excited that many people who have not been involved in politics before are getting involved in the process.”

Portman has been more aloof, according to Tea Party organizers in Ohio.

“He has not reached out to our group,” said Rob Scott, founder and president of the Dayton Tea Party.

The Dayton Tea Party has invited Portman to a candidate forum scheduled for March 27 but still has not received confirmation from his campaign.

“They’ve put us off,” said Scott, who added that he will likely support Portman’s candidacy.

Charles Dyer, chairman of the Central Ohio Tea Party Patriots, said he has also found Portman less than enthusiastic to embrace Tea Party activists and voters.

“We’ve had the same experience in central Ohio,” Dyer said. “He doesn’t have any strong challengers on the conservative side so he might not see that as a necessity at this time.”

Portman’s campaign disputes this.

Jessica Towhey, spokeswoman for Portman, said the campaign is “working actively” to schedule appearances with “about a dozen” Tea Party groups.

Towhey explained that Portman declined to schedule any joint appearances with potential primary opponents before Ohio’s Feb. 18 filing deadline.

The different approaches of Blunt and Portman may be explained by the circumstances of their respective primaries.

Blunt finds himself in a crowded primary. Portman does not have a challenger, as auto dealer Tom Ganley has dropped out of the Senate race.

Ohio Tea Party organizers note that before Ganley dropped his bid, he did significantly more than Portman to reach out to them.

Blunt and Portman could both face difficulty mobilizing Tea Party support this year because of their strong affiliation with GOP leadership in Washington during George W. Bush’s presidency.
 
Blunt served a long stint as House Republican Whip and helped Bush push his agenda through Congress. In late 2005 and early 2006 Blunt served simultaneously as House majority leader and House majority whip before losing a leadership race to House Republican Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBottom line Cheney battle raises questions about House GOP's future Lott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients MORE (R-Ohio).

Portman also served in the House Republican leadership, albeit in a lower-ranking role, and went on to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under Bush.

The Tea Party emerged as a force over the past year in large part because of dissatisfaction among fiscally conservative voters with the GOP’s record on spending during the Bush administration.

Many Tea Party activists say Republicans in Washington lost sight of their principles during the Bush years and outsider candidates running in GOP primaries are trying to take advantage of this.   

"We've got this large debt, about $13 trillion; a lot of it, more of that debt than I would like to admit as a Republican, was acquired when Republicans controlled Congress and much of it was acquired when Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress," said Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeTea Party rises up against McConnell's trillion relief plan Hillicon Valley: Twitter bans thousands of QAnon accounts | Bipartisan support grows for election funds in Senate stimulus bill | Senate committee advances bill to ban TikTok from federal devices Senators demand answers on expired surveillance programs MORE, a Republican candidate challenging Sen. Robert Bennett (R) in Utah.
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Lee made his comments at a press conference at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last month and many Tea Party voters share his view.

Tea Party organizers in Missouri and Ohio say that Blunt and Portman will have to explain their records in Washington if they expect conservative voters to get excited about their candidacies.

“If it was just [President Barack] Obama increasing the size of government and if conservatives thought we could turn this around just by electing Republicans, you would not have seen the same uprising,” said Loudon, who explained that Republican candidates, especially members of Congress, must persuade Tea Party voters that they have learned from the spending mistakes under Bush.

Scott, of the Dayton Tea Party, said Portman was “in Congress when Republicans were spending — not as much as the current Congress — but were spending beyond the means of the country.

“Portman was Bush’s OMB director, he was in charge of the budget and he’s going to have to explain that,” Scott added.

Towhey, Portman’s spokeswoman, responded by noting that Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a fiscally conservative group, has endorsed her boss.

“Rob Portman is very conservative and he has a very conservative voting record,” she said. “He’s been recognized by numerous groups for exactly those reasons on budget issues and tax matters.”

Chrismer, Blunt’s spokesman, noted that the conservative Missouri Republican Assembly, a group that calls itself the Republican wing of the Republican Party, has endorsed Blunt.

[Editor's note: After publication of this article, the Portman for Senate campaign said it had been in talks with Dayton Tea Party through another representative of the group. The campaign also said it had not been asked by the Dayton Tea Party to schedule an event on March 27.

The campaign said it had no record of being contacted by Charles Dyer, chairman of the Central Ohio Tea Party Patriots.]