The failure of Tea Party-backed candidates in Tuesday's elections shows that Democrats have been successful in making the Tea Party label a negative for Republicans, even if it isn't always clear what being a Tea Party candidate means.
Exit polls in Virginia, where Republican Ken Cucinelli lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, show 42% of voters had a negative opinion of the Tea Party movement. Those voters went overwhelmingly for McAuliffe.
A Tea Party-affiliated Republican in Alabama, Dean Young, lost a congressional primary against Bradley Byrne, who was backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests. And in New Jersey, voters re-elected GOP Gov. Chris Christie by a landslide while expressing dislike of the Republican Party (57%) and the Tea Party movement (45%), exit polls show.
Democrats touted those results Wednesday. "The Republican brand and the Tea Party brand are one and the same, and people do not like either," said Mo Elleithee, Democratic National Committee spokesman.
By emphasizing the Tea Party ties of social conservatives such as Cuccinelli, Young and former Missouri representative Todd Akin, Democrats are able to blur the distinction between the limited government/less spending origins of the Tea Party and the opposition to gay marriage and abortion of GOP conservatives.
Democrats conflate the Tea Party and the GOP "because they see that it hurts us," said Keli Carender, national grass-roots director of the Tea Party Patriots.
October's government shutdown was pushed by Tea Party leaders Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, and supported by a majority of congressional Republicans -- further eroding the distinction between the Tea Party and the GOP.
Tea Party principles had been "perverted" by Republicans in Washington who "use that theory just to try to enhance themselves politically," Christie, a critic of the shutdown, said this week on CNN. Republicans should have been emphasizing instead their success in cutting spending through the sequester, which imposed automatic cuts, he said.
The Tea Party is blurry by definition because it's a movement, not a party, said Adam Brandon of the Tea Party group Freedom Works. "The Tea Party is an easy punching bag ... from the left, and it's a punching bag from the right. There's no one out there really defending it," he says.
What works instead, Brandon said, is for Republicans to avoid labels and talk about cutting spending and taxes, the Tea Party's core issues. "Even if people have a negative view of the Tea Party, they have a positive view of all these issues."
Rob Collins, chief strategist for the Senate GOP's 2014 campaign operation, said Democrats' focus on GOP divisions is overstated. "It's not so much an ideological rift, it's more of a tactical rift. Strategically, we all want the same thing," he said this week.
Collins acknowledged that the GOP is facing pressure not only from grass-roots activists and outside groups that are attempting to harness them, but also increasingly from its mainstream constituencies such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the business lobby.
Contributing: Susan Davis
Win McNamee, Getty Images
Copyright 2013 USA TODAY
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