- The Washington Times
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Eager to present a unified front before the midterm elections, the GOP’s congressional campaign committees say they are rallying their financial and political muscle behind “tea party” candidates who knocked off some of their hand-picked Republicans in the primaries.

They’ve cut fat checks, sunk millions of dollars into campaign advertisements and reserved additional airtime in likely battlegrounds across the country on behalf of tea-party-backed winners.

But the decisions on which candidates to support and which should be left to fend for themselves are expected to become increasingly difficult to make in the coming weeks as the campaign season heats up and party resources are drawn down.

“It’s on a case-by-case basis,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist. “They put money into places that they can win.”

By most accounts, the task got more complicated after two tea party candidates - Christine O’Donnell of Delaware and Joe Miller of Alaska - beat more moderate Republicans, Rep. Mike Castle and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, respectively, who were considered Election Day shoo-ins.

But Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist, said the results in those states should not overshadow how the toxic political environment for Democrats is opening opportunities in other Senate races across the country.

“If you listen to many folks, they would tell you Delaware became a challenge when Castle didn’t win the nomination,” Mr. Madden said. “But I think it’s harder to make the argument that the chance to take back the Senate majority rests just on that state when you have ample opportunities in places like Connecticut, West Virginia and Wisconsin that at the beginning of the [election] cycle did not present themselves.”

With insurgent tea party candidates defeating so many incumbents or candidates handpicked by party leaders, some analysts wondered how willing the party would be to back them.

So far, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has cut $42,600 checks to seven of the eight tea party candidates, the maximum allowed under federal law. The only exception is Mike Lee, who upended incumbent Sen. Robert F. Bennett’sbid for a fourth term in Utah and now holds a double-digit lead in the polls over Democrat Sam Granato.

The NRSC also has pumped millions of additional dollars into campaigns for television advertisements and committed millions more in airtime for some of the candidates that Democrats consider the GOP’s most vulnerable.

In most campaigns, the candidates do the heavy lifting, and the party committees, the NRSC and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), help with direct donations, advice and, sometimes, paid advertising.

Mr. Bonjean said a check from the NRSC is a drop in the bucket compared with the $2 million Ms. O’Donnell has raised since the primary.

“I don’t think they were slated to do heavy advertising for Castle because he was so up in the polls,” he said. “Conversely, while they have given some money to O’Donnell, I don’t know if they will actually spend a lot of money there because she has raised so much from outside donors.”

Democrats, though, say the tea party victories, along with Mrs. Murkowski’s subsequent decision to run for re-election as a write-in candidate, are proof that the GOP is being pulled toward the ideologically “extreme” views that some of its candidates rode to victory in the primary season.

They point to calls for a repeal of President Obama’s health care law, claim that Republicans want to “end Social Security” and say that tea party victories have created a more favorable environment for at least eight races for House seats.

“For Republicans, what once seemed radical is now wholly in the mainstream,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said in a fundraising e-mail sent Wednesday.

The former Virginia governor drove home his point by noting that Mr. Miller has said that the GOP “must have the courage to shut down the government” to stop the expansion of government.

“A government shutdown would cut off the programs, benefits, and services relied upon by millions of seniors, veterans, and families around the country. Veterans’ hospitals would be closed; Social Security checks would not go out,” Mr. Kaine said. “This is the political equivalent of a temper tantrum - and it hurts those who need help the most.”

The Republican campaign committees are pushing ahead with the candidates that Republican primary voters have given them.

The groups’ assistance to Senate candidates includes $2.5 million that helped Marco Rubio pay for television ads in Florida and pledged commitments of $2 million for Rand Paul in Kentucky and $700,000 for Sharron Angle in Nevada. In fact, the NRSC last week started running its first ad of the election cycle in Kentucky, where widely divergent polls show either Mr. Paul up by as many as 15 points or in a statistical dead heat with the Democratic candidate, Attorney General Jack Conway.

“In key states across the country, the NRSC is heavily invested and is committed to ensuring they have the resources to win,” said Brian Walsh, NRSC spokesman.

On the House side, the NRCC has reserved airtime for eight candidates with local tea party backing and tried to elevate the profiles of others by listing them as “Young Guns” - candidates that the NRCC says gives the country the best opportunity to move the country in the right direction.

NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay tried to dispel any notion that the NRCC is not prepared to put its full weight behind tea party primary winners and warned that it is too early in the campaign season to read much into where the NRCC is spending money.

“We have many tea party candidates that we are supporting,” he said.

With roughly 40 days to go before voters head to the polls, the tea party movement is credited with pulling off some of the biggest upsets of the election season - the latest coming last week after Ms. O’Donnell’s stunning victory over Mr. Castle, a nine-term incumbent.

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