For failed candidates, tea party's the ticket
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Christine O'Donnell may have burst onto the national stage this week as the tea party's latest challenge to the Republican establishment, but she's hardly a new face in Delaware, where she lost two previous bids for the Senate, in 2006 and 2008.
And O'Donnell, the upset winner over Rep. Mike Castle in Tuesday's GOP Senate primary, is hardly the only Republican with a losing record who has found success in the anti-establishment tea party. Across the country, many of this year's tea party candidates are outsiders only because they have failed in previous attempts over the years to become insiders. In fact, some lost multiple Republican primary or general election campaigns before recasting themselves as tea party champions.
Sometimes it's just a matter of shifting their focus from social or national security issues to the fiscal concerns that have been the tea party's foundation. But other re-brandings have involved more complete stylistic - if not substantive -- overhauls in an effort to portray themselves as outsiders untainted by participation in a corrupt political system.
In several cases, they've been met with open arms by tea party activists, many of whom are new to politics -- and this troubles some tea party leaders.
"They haven't really looked into some of these candidates -- it's enough that they say they believe in freedom," said Andrew Ian Dodge, the Maine state coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, which does not make endorsements.
"There are candidates in some states who are kind of gadflies who suddenly jumped on the band-wagon," Dodge said, adding that separating them from true outsiders motivated by tea party principles is "something that the tea party movement is very much learning."
In Florida, retired lieutenant colonel Allen West, who focused primarily on national security issues during an underfunded 2008 loss to Democratic Rep. Ron Klein, has emerged for a rematch as a tea party darling with a bulging war-chest and a narrow lead in some polls.
In Virginia, businessman Keith Fimian -- defeated by Rep. Gerry Connolly in a 2008 race in which Fimian's stances on social issues were assailed as too conservative for the suburban Washington district -- is back for a rematch, after riding tea party support to an upset win over a more moderate candidate in the GOP primary. This year's race has focused on the fiscal issues that motivate tea party activists and handicappers give Fimian better odds than in 2008, with the Washington Post declaring him "born anew as a 'tea party-backed conservative."
O'Donnell is perhaps the best example of a repeat candidate taking off after catching the tea party wave. Though she unsuccessfully sought the GOP Senate nomination in 2006 (mounting a write-in campaign after losing in a three-way primary) and won the nomination in 2008 (only to be crushed by then-Sen. Joe Biden in the general election), she cast herself as the outsider in her long-shot bid against Castle, a pillar of the Delaware GOP.
After pulling off the shocking upset, she declared in her triumphant victory speech "No more politics as usual!" Her cause she said, "is restoring America."
A former aide, though, in an interview with POLITICO, cast O'Donnell as a political opportunist seizing a surging conservative movement to further her earning power and political ambitions.
"You're dealing with someone who is a complete fraud," said Kristin Murray, who ran O'Donnell's 2008 Senate campaign against Biden, and who charged in a robo-call that her old boss "is no conservative."
Murray told POLITICO "If it was popular to be really liberal now, maybe she'd do that."
The tea party's most stunning victory before O'Donnell's came in Alaska, where Sen. Lisa Murkowski was toppled in her GOP primary by Joe Miller, a virtual unknown whose campaign was aided substantially by advertising support from the Tea Party Express political action committee.
The Express, which has played a critical role in all the three seminal tea party Senate primary wins this year (Miller, O'Donnell and Sharron Angle of Nevada), backed Miller almost exclusively on the recommendation of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, according to the PAC's creator, Sal Russo.
"Gov. Palin vouched for Joe Miller that he was the real deal and we took her word for it," he said, acknowledging knowing little of Miller's background, the highlights of which were an unsuccessful 2008 effort with Palin to oust the Alaska GOP state chairman, and an unsuccessful race in 2004 for the Alaska legislature.
In that race, Miller presented himself "as a moderate because it is a moderate district -- he was not as strident," said state Rep. David Guttenberg, the Democrat who defeated him.
Murkowski was vulnerable to a more conservative opponent, and Miller's embrace of tea party rhetoric was savvy political opportunism, charged Guttenberg, "but in the (2004) campaign in his speeches and in the debates, he wasn't there."
Even Republicans who have had past success as moderates have reemerged as tea partiers after loss-induced hiatuses.
In New Hampshire, for instance, former Rep. Charles Bass initially courted tea party support in his bid for the congressional seat he lost in 2006 after six terms in which he established a reputation as nuanced moderate.
In Congress, he opposed taxes and regulation, but also supported positions seemingly at odds with tea party's limited-government philosophy, such as social welfare spending, campaign finance reform and environmental protections, including protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling. And, after he lost his seat to Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes, who is vacating it to run for Senate, Bass became head of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, which later supported government bailouts of the finance sector and big banks.
Surprised when Bass praised tea partiers in announcing his candidacy and declared "their agenda is exactly the same as mine," the Concord Monitor remarked in an editorial: "our Charlie Bass, a tea-partier? You gotta be kidding."
While acknowledging the reality that Republicans tend to run to the right in contested primaries, the paper's editorial board concluded "Bass needs to let voters know who they will be getting if they vote for him: Is it the Charlie Bass of the Main Street Republicans or Tea Party Charlie?"
One of his primary opponents, conservative talk show host Jennifer Horn deemed his embrace of tea party conservatism "an election-year makeover," telling POLITICO that Bass's early embrace of the tea party "surprised everybody. His history in Congress does not reflect what those folks in the tea party are talking about."
But Bass won the nomination by carrying 41 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary, with Horn and another candidate splitting the more conservative vote.
Efforts by other veteran Republicans to win favor with tea party activists have not fared so well.
In the Colorado governor's race, tea party activists largely rejected entreaties from former Rep. Scott McInnis, who left Congress in 2005 and flirted with a 2008 Senate bid, before declaring his gubernatorial campaign. Instead, tea partiers fell in behind eventual nominee Dan Maes, an unlikely first-time candidate who blasted politics as usual,
McGinnis "tried to claim he was tea party, but was smoked out as establishment's hand-picked guy," said Lu Ann Busse, chair of the tea party-linked Colorado 9.12 Project. She added that Maes "became the grassroots' preferred candidate by spending time with everyday voters across Colorado."
Since winning the nomination, Maes has come under pressure from the establishment and the tea party alike to drop out of the race after being revealed as having exaggerated his law enforcement experience, violated campaign finance rules, and voicing a bizarre theory about Denver's bicycle-sharing program threatening "our personal freedoms" and possibly leading to world government.
The Tea Party Express's Russo says tea party activists have become adept at determining which candidates are ideologically aligned with the movement on its core issues, and are less concerned with other issue stances or whether a candidate is brand new to politics.
"You've got to find a candidate who's in concert with the zeitgeist of the times, which is concern about the expansiveness and intrusiveness of the federal government and all the costs associated with that -- and that happens to be where the tea party is," said Russo.
He said Tea Party Express "looked for candidates who were going to wake up the (Senate Republican) caucus up to act more fiscally responsible," he said, adding that Angle -- who served six year in the Nevada state legislature before making unsuccessful Congressional bids in 2006 and 2008 -- fit the bill.
"Sharron Angle had demonstrated under (GOP) Gov. Kenny Guinn that she was not afraid to say no to the big-spending, high-tax merry go round, and that she didn't care if it was a Republican governor telling her to do it."
As for O'Donnell, Russo said, "I heard pretty candidly her strengths and weaknesses. We knew what we were getting into. Would she be a great candidate in some years? Probably not. But in this year, she was a terrific candidate."
First Published September 17, 2010 12:00 am