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Tea party groups target Senate after presidential 'disappointments'

By Martina Stewart, CNN Political Producer
March 29, 2012 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Tea party conservatives have set their sights on Congressional elections, as well as the White Hosue
Tea party conservatives have set their sights on Congressional elections, as well as the White Hosue
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Conservatives dividing their attention between White House race, Congressional campaigns
  • Pundit: Conservatism might be served by focusing on Capitol Hill as opposed to White House
  • Democrats are defending 23 Senate seats this year; Republicans are defending 10
  • Democratic spokesman says tea party challenges to GOP candidates actually help the left

Washington (CNN) -- After six terms in the Senate, Indiana's Richard Lugar finds himself the latest target of the tea party movement's desire both to have more influence over the policy agenda in Congress and to make the Republican Party more conservative.

"He's an old RINO Republican," Jim Bratten, an Indiana coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, said of Lugar, meaning he's a Republican in name only. "He's been there [in Washington] for over 36 years, but gradually he's gotten closer and closer to the left, and he seems to want to compromise on things that are principle that you really can't compromise on."

CNN Political ticker: Tea party group backs Lugar challenger

The tea party movement's effort to oust Lugar in Indiana is part of a larger trend of conservatives dividing their attention between the White House race and other campaigns in a year when the race for the Republican presidential nomination has failed to captivate conservatives.

The GOP presidential race "was sort of the campaign of -- kind of -- disappointments," said Brendan Steinhauser, director of state and federal programs for FreedomWorks, a national organization with ties to the tea party movement.

Steinhauser said conservatives are disappointed that governors like Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush did not run for the Republican nomination.

"Rick Perry was a disappointment; there were so many obvious reasons," Steinhauser said. "He was a conservative governor, but his campaign was just sort of awful."

Steinhauser points out that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum all have political resumes that predate the tea party movement, leading conservatives to be concerned about each man's commitment to the movement's core principles of smaller government and less spending.

Steinhauser, said that if the GOP wins the White House, "We're still going to have to have control of the levers of power in Congress to hold [the new Republican president] accountable, to send policy to [the new president's] desk that [he's] either going to have to sign or not. And so that's where we think the real levers of power are."

He also noted that if President Obama wins a second term, "certainly you have to take over the Senate and protect the House in order to stop his agenda."

Conservative political pundit George F. Will recently gave voice to both concerns expressed by Steinhauser. In an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this month, Will openly suggested that the cause of conservatism might be equally well served by focusing on Capitol Hill as opposed to the White House in this November's election.

"Conservatives this year should have as their primary goal making sure Republicans wield all the gavels in Congress in 2013," Will wrote in a column, entitled "Plan B for stopping Obama."

Assisted by a groundswell of support from the tea party movement, Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010, and conservatives in the House have fought hard since then to put reducing spending, deficits and debt on the national agenda. But Congress' upper chamber has been out of conservatives' reach and governed by the Democrats' slim 53-to-47 majority -- a situation that could change in November when Democrats are defending 23 Senate seats and Republicans are defending 10 seats.

"I think the Senate is in play," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "There are lots of Democratic seats in play, and some of them look like terrific Republican opportunities."

But Rothenberg points out that the tea party movement has been working mostly at the level of GOP primaries in order to try to field conservative candidates who they hope will win the GOP nomination for the Senate. In particular, Rothenberg highlighted closely watched challenges to Lugar in Indiana and another long-serving incumbent, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

"The Lugar primary, the Hatch primary," Rothenberg says, "that's the case of movement conservatives, some in the tea party wanting to oust a Republican in favor of what they think is -- what they expect is -- a more conservative Republican."

Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, says the tea party's challenge to Lugar in the GOP primary and similar challenges to more moderate Republicans across the country are working to the Democrats' benefit as they try to hold on to control of the Senate.

"So far, the tea party has done more to damage Republican prospects than anything else," Canter told CNN, "The notion that the tea party cares about actually improving Republican chances seems preposterous when you take a look at the kind of strife and division and bloody primaries they've caused in Senate races all around the country."

Canter added, "All of that plays horribly in a general election.

"The difference between our strategy and their strategy," Canter said, "is their strategy is helping us succeed. They're going in and attacking more moderate Republicans. They're attacking establishment Republicans in places like Indiana with Dick Lugar... They're attacking establishment candidates creating bloody, divisive primaries that give the Democrat the advantage [in the general election]."

"That's fanciful spin by the Democrats," Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said, "The reality is that both sides have primaries. Both sides have always had primaries. The Democrats are having tough primaries [in a number of states]."

Once the primaries are over, Walsh said Senate races across the country will present voters with a clear contrast between "a candidate who has a record of supporting the president's agenda -- supporting government health care, supporting reckless spending, supporting higher taxes, versus a conservative Republican who's going to be a check and balance on the Obama agenda."

And, Walsh said, "there's no denying" that the tea party movement "has been a tremendous net positive for the Republican Party," including bringing energy and enthusiasm at the grassroots level.

Walsh discounted the possible ill effects of the tea party movement's efforts to oust Lugar in the GOP primary. "No matter who -- whether it's Sen. Lugar or Richard Mourdock, Republicans will win that seat in November," Walsh said.

While they have found another goal in the form of taking control of the Senate, Rothenberg predicts that, regardless of their misgivings during the primaries, conservatives will rally behind Mitt Romney if he wins the GOP nomination -- particularly if Romney comes under sustained attack by Obama's re-election machine.

Indeed notable conservatives with ties to the tea party movement are beginning to acknowledge Romney's virtually insurmountable delegate lead in the GOP nomination fight. Last week representatives of FreedomWorks acknowledged that Romney is likely to become the GOP's presidential nominee. And, Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a leading figure in conservative politics, said he was "excited" about the possibility of Romney being the Republican nominee.

This week, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who came to the Senate in 2010 with strong tea party backing, announced his support for Romney.

Although Bratten told CNN that he thinks the grassroots is more conservative than many in the national media realize, he also said he thinks Romney will win over the grassroots if he faces off against the president in November.

"Personally, I'd vote for a ham sandwich before I'd vote for President Obama," Bratten said.

And, more than that, Bratten said he thinks tea party groups he's in contact with in Indiana "will actively campaign for Romney because of what's at stake... When it comes off that you can't get the most conservative [candidate] and you have to settle for somebody that's less conservative, it's still [a] night-and-day difference compared to what's in the White House right now -- the guy that's in power and his whole administration."

Jennifer Stefano, a tea party activist and statewide coordinator for Americans for Prosperity in Pennsylvania, was more blunt about the place of the tea party movement in national politics. "People like to say that we're dead. Unfortunately, the only thing we are is deadly effective."

When asked what she thought the grassroots movement will do if Romney becomes the GOP nominee, Stefano did not hesitate. "The tea party...is fully engaged for 2012 in every way possible."

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