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Tea Party Set to Win Enough Races for Wide Influence

Enough Tea Party-supported candidates are running strongly in competitive and Republican-leaning Congressional races that the movement stands a good chance of establishing a sizeable caucus to push its agenda in the House and the Senate, according to a New York Times analysis.

Jeffrey Coolidge | Iconica | Getty Images

With a little more than two weeks till Election Day, 33 Tea Party-backed candidates are in tossup races or running in House districts that are solidly or leaning Republican, and 8 stand a good or better chance of winning Senate seats.

While the numbers are relatively small, they could exert outsize influence, putting pressure on Republican leaders to carry out promises to significantly cut spending and taxes, to repeal health care legislation and financial regulations passed this year, and to phase out Social Security and Medicare in favor of personal savings accounts.

Still, the bulk of the Tea Party candidates are running in districts that are solidly Democratic, meaning that most Tea Party efforts — no matter how energetic — are likely to register as basically a protest vote.

An analysis of each House and Senate race found 138 Tea Party candidates, all Republicans, running for nearly half the Democratic or open seats in the House and a third of those in the Senate — or, in the case of two Republican House incumbents, defending seats won with Tea Party backing in special elections earlier this year.

Tea Party nominees have performed better than expected in many cases, including races in which the establishment candidates they defeated in the primaries were considered the stronger general election contenders. This includes well-known nominees like Rand Paul, running for the Senate in Kentucky, as well as lesser-known candidates like Dan Benishek, running to replace a retiring House Democrat in Michigan.

But as establishment Republicans feared, the Tea Party has also handed opportunities to the Democrats by nominating candidates who have struggled.

This includes not just Christine O’Donnell, the Senate nominee in Delaware, but also candidates like Joe Walsh, running in a House district outside Chicago. In May, top campaign staff members quit after revelations that Mr. Walsh had lost a home to foreclosure, and accused him of bouncing checks, lying about fund-raising, failing to pay taxes and driving with a suspended license. In a district that has historically favored Republicans, his Democratic opponent is leading.

Still, it suggests the stubbornness of voter anger toward the establishment that several candidates, most first-time contenders, have remained viable despite revelations of extensive financial problems, domestic disputes or other apparent improprieties.

Of 129 Tea Party candidates for the House, 7 are running in solidly Republican districts — all but one of those seats is now held by a Republican. Another 7 are running for seats currently held by Democrats but in districts leaning toward the Tea Party Republican.

Nineteen are in tossup races, for seats that are held, with the exception of two, by Democrats. And 29 are running for seats in districts that are leaning Democratic — of those, only one is currently held by a Republican. Sixty-seven are challenging Democrats who are expected to win — though this is a year when the unexpected has been more rule than exception.

In the Senate, there are 9 Tea Party candidates running for a potential of 27 seats — not including those where the incumbent is the Republican nominee.

For purposes of the list, Tea Party candidates were those who had entered politics through the movement or who are receiving significant support from local Tea Party groups and who share the ideology of the movement. Many have been endorsed by groups like FreedomWorks or the Tea Party Express, or by conservative kingmakers like Sarah Palin and Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, but those endorsements alone were not enough to qualify as a Tea Party candidate.

The states with the highest concentration of Tea Party candidates are South Carolina, Massachusetts and Arizona. In South Carolina, this reflects the energy of the movement; in Massachusetts, where almost none of the candidates are expected to win, it reflects a historically weak Republican farm team.

Election handicappers have said for months that the test of the Tea Party would be whether its energy ended up hurting Republicans more than it helped, by leading to the selection of less viable candidates in the primaries.

Polls suggest that in the Senate, the hurt may outweigh the help. The four seats that are leaning or solidly Republican and feature Tea Party candidates were in Republican hands to begin with.

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Ms. O’Donnell’s surprise upset of the establishment candidate in Delaware dashed Republican hopes for a seat that even Democrats had expected to lose. The Tea Party candidate in Nevada, Sharron Angle, has improved the odds that Senator Harry Reid, the leader of Democratic majority, hangs onto his seat. And having Rand Paul as their nominee has made the fight in Kentucky tougher than Republicans anticipated.

On the other hand, Ron Johnson, a plastics magnate with a libertarian bent and strong Tea Party support, has made Wisconsin an unexpected tossup. And Ken Buck, who was thought to be the weaker of two Republican primary candidates in Colorado, has kept that race competitive.

In the House, Tea Party candidates are allowing Democrats to poll well in a few districts where demographics and voting history suggest that Republicans should win — the district that includes Tucson, the one north and west of Pittsburgh, and one in suburban Chicago.

For the most part, Tea Party candidates are doing well in areas where any Republican would be expected to do well. There does not appear to be any case where a Tea Party candidate has helped make a Democratic-leaning district more competitive for Republicans.

While there is no official Tea Party platform, candidates share a determination to repeal the health care legislation passed in March. They vow not only to permanently extend the tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush and to eliminate the estate tax, but also to replace the progressive income tax with a flat tax or a national sales tax. Several candidates advocate abolishing the Internal Revenue Service entirely.

Many have called for a balanced budget amendment. They oppose newly passed financial regulation, and oppose cap-and-trade of carbon emissions.

The candidates also promise to carry into office the Tea Party’s strict interpretation of the Constitution.

Paul Gosar, a dentist who defeated several other candidates, including the 2008 nominee, to win the primary in a Republican-leaning district in Arizona, told an interviewer that “adhering to the words of the founding fathers means putting the government role in the health care, the Department of Education, and yes, entitlements, all on the table for a constitutional examination.”

In a questionnaire for a Tea Party group, Steve Stivers, running for Congress in Ohio, said that only four departments — Defense, Justice, State and Treasury — perform “constitutional roles,” meaning “you could eliminate the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy and others to return to a constitutionally pure government.”

Many candidates — Mr. Paul, in Kentucky, as well as many in the House races — have embraced a pledge to require Congress to indicate how any new legislation is authorized in the Constitution, and contend that the Constitution does not authorize many of the things the federal government does now. Republicans picked up this idea in their Pledge to America agenda.

- Kitty Bennett and Archie Tse contributed research

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