MEMPHIS, Tenn. - It's too early to proclaim the end of the U.S. conservative tea party movement.
But the Republican Party and its allies are using campaign cash, positions of influence and other levers of power to defuse what they consider primary challenges by weak conservative candidates before the 2014 congressional elections and the 2016 presidential race. The party is cherry-picking other candidates, including some who rode the right-wing tea party wave to a House majority in 2010. Some of those lawmakers are getting boosts from the very establishment the class they vowed to upend.
It's an expensive and sweeping effort by national and state Republicans to blur the dividing line between factions that many believe cost the party the Senate majority in 2012 and prolonged the presidential nomination fight that year. This year, Republicans are within six seats of controlling the Senate. If they win Senate control this November and keep their House majority, even deeper frustrations would await President Barack Obama in his final two years in office.
"We can't expect to win if we are fighting each other all the time," said Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.
Merging the factions is uncomfortable for all sides, and weighted heavily in favour of the well-financed and organized Republican Party, its state affiliates and allied groups like the Chamber of Commerce. In contrast, the other faction — the tea party — is a loosely affiliated group of conservative activists — some who now call themselves the "liberty movement" — who favour smaller government and a balanced budget.
Public opinion suggests that some voters have tired of the tea party's cut-it-or-shut-it approach to governing after years of crises in which House conservatives' refusal to compromise brought the U.S. to the brink of a default and helped drive a partial government shutdown. A Gallup survey out Thursday found that about four in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents classify themselves as supporters of the tea party, down from more than six in 10 — a high-water mark — in November 2010.
The Gallup survey follows an AP-GfK poll in March that found about one in five Americans supports the tea party, a modest improvement from public approval of the movement at the height of the government shutdown in October.
By changing rules at the presidential level and showering money and support in the primaries on candidates in North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan and more states, Republican leaders are trying to drum out tea party-approved candidates they consider flawed — like ones who were seen as costing the party winnable Senate seats in Delaware, Missouri and Nevada in recent years.
As the Republican Party calculates how to cull the best of the tea party's candidates and energy, the activists are trying to figure out what they've won in the four-year-long struggle for control of the party. Some say they have succeeded in pushing the party toward their deeply conservative ideals.
Establishment candidates now "run on our message; they run as populists," said Daniel Horowitz of the conservative Madison Project, which has endorsed candidates in more than a dozen Republican primaries. "In one sense, it's frustration on our part. On the other, it shows that we're winning."
Looking ahead to 2016's presidential race, Republican officials are meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, this week to figure out how to prevent a nominating contest that leaves an establishment-favoured candidate battling tea party-styled longshots. Republican National Committee members are rewriting rules to shorten the nomination period and limit the number of debates.
An RNC panel on Thursday recommended a 13-member committee that would pick debate hosts and limit how many can take place. Candidates who participate in rogue forums would be banned from attending future, RNC-sanctioned debates.
The full RNC was set to take up the measure on Friday.
In effect, the tighter rules would make it more difficult for an outsider or under-funded candidate to find success.
In the 2012 presidential race, strong debate performances kept tea party-favoured candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain in the running well past their viability. In all, 20 media-sponsored debates kept eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney occupied fending off challengers well into the election year, rather than focusing early on Obama. In 2016, the goal would be for six to 10 debates before February or March.
In the House and Senate contests, there's recent evidence that the Republican Party and their allied groups are winning the political tug of war.
In North Carolina on Tuesday, state House speaker Thom Tillis easily coasted past the 40 per cent threshold for securing the nomination without a runoff with his challengers, who had cast him as a tool of the Republican establishment. In Ohio, House Speaker John Boehner shellacked his primary opponent despite being attacked as the very face of the deal-making powers.
Kellman reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta also contributed to this report.
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