Posted on September 23, 2010
By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The rise of conservative Tea Party candidates in an unpredictable U.S. election season has created a bigger, "rowdier" Republican Party but could make it even harder to find common ground in a polarized Congress.
Pledging loyalty to an agenda of reduced spending, lower taxes and limited government, Tea Party challengers have beaten Republican insiders in a series of primary elections that have dramatically reshaped the party.
From Alaska to Delaware, candidates from the loosely organized Tea Party movement and the excitement they created have energized Republicans, bolstered voter turnout and put the party in position to make big gains in the November 2 congressional election, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander said.
"We're glad to have that energy in our party. It will make us bigger, a little rowdier and more effective," Alexander told the Reuters Washington Summit on Wednesday.
But Chris Van Hollen, who heads the Democratic Party's campaign efforts in the House of Representatives, warned an already partisan Congress could become more deeply gridlocked if Tea Party candidates continue their run into November.
"If some of these Tea Party candidates win, the message that is going to go out to Republican members of Congress is 'no compromise,'" Van Hollen said at the summit. "They have sent a signal that 'we are going to punish those who are independent minded and willing to work across the aisle.'"
In an election dominated by worries about the economy and jobs, the Tea Party's call for more government austerity has resonated with voters unhappy with President Barack Obama's agenda and the Washington establishment of both parties.
Opinion polls show Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Ken Buck in Colorado are leading or running even with Democrats in key Senate races that could decide the balance of power.
The rise of the Tea Party was capped in Delaware last week with the victory of little-known Christine O'Donnell, who beat popular former governor and nine-term Representative Michael Castle -- one of the last Republican moderates in Congress.
"If the message sent in this election is that moderates like Mike Castle have no role or room in the Republican Party, you are going to find Republicans doubling down on this strategy of obstruction," Van Hollen said.
Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman echoed Van Hollen, saying a more strident form of partisanship had infected politics.
"That's a real danger for the country -- that people will conclude that there's a political advantage in refusing to compromise and work together," he said at the Reuters summit.
"Elected members of Congress are expected to toe the line for their particular cadre of talkshow hosts or whoever. I think it's gotten more difficult for more members to walk across the political divide and compromise."
Republicans are expected to make big gains in November, threatening to recapture control of the House and perhaps even the Senate.
Republicans are favored to pick up the 39 Democratic seats they need for a majority in the House and have a realistic but difficult shot at capturing the 10 Senate seats they need.
"We're going to have a good day," Alexander said, predicting there could be 15 to 20 new Republican senators after the election. "I have no idea if it will be a majority or not."
Van Hollen expected Democrats to retain their majority in the House as voters, particularly independents, learned more about a Republican agenda he said was taken from the playbook of former President George W. Bush.
Van Hollen said voters were just beginning to tune into the campaign and Democratic activists would be energized by the growing predictions of doom for the party.
"They are getting more and more motivated," he said of core Democratic voters, who polls show do not have as much enthusiasm for voting as their Republican counterparts.
Alexander said Democrats have ruled during the last two years with "an arrogance of power" that helped fuel a voter backlash against Obama and the party.
"The attitude of the Democratic majority and the president has been 'We won the election and we'll write the bill and we'll ram it through in the middle of the night in the middle of the snow storm,'" he said.
Gridlock was preferable to Democratic rule, Alexander said, taking a shot at the healthcare overhaul and economic stimulus plans approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress with little or no Republican support.
"We prefer gridlock to the healthcare law," he said. "We prefer gridlock to $1 trillion in spending that's labeled a stimulus."