ANALYSIS

How the tea party is hurting Republicans

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., center, accompanied by  Tea Party Patriots National Coordinator Jenny Beth Martin, left, and Lisa Nancollas of the Pennsylvania Tea Party Patriots, speaks in front at the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, March 28.
Carolyn Kaster | AP
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., center, accompanied by Tea Party Patriots National Coordinator Jenny Beth Martin, left, and Lisa Nancollas of the Pennsylvania Tea Party Patriots, speaks in front at the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, March 28.
Posted April 07, 2012, at 4:35 p.m.

The tea party may have won Republicans the House of Representatives in 2010, but in 2012, it’s looking like it could help Democrats retain the White House.

Now nearly three years old, the tea party has fallen out of favor with Americans and Democrats are prepared to use it against Republicans in this year’s elections.

A recent Fox News poll showed just 30 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the tea party, compared with 51 percent who viewed it unfavorably.

A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll may be more illustrative, though. It showed Americans were more evenly split on the tea party, with 44 percent supporting it and 43 percent opposing it. But just 15 percent of Americans supported the tea party “strongly,” while many more — 26 percent — were “strongly” opposed to it.

That suggests opposition to the tea party is more strident than the tea party itself, which means the movement may be doing the GOP more harm than good.

The numbers are similar to the ones we saw during the health-care debate, when both sides had about the same number of supporters, but the opponents were much more motivated.

In addition, the fervor and enthusiasm spurred by the tea party in 2010 appears to have dissipated, with no major tea party rallies taking place this year and fewer Republican candidates latching on to the label. On the presidential campaign trail, the tea party is rarely mentioned.

In contrast, Democrats are actually starting to wield the tea party label as a tool in their campaigns.

“I’m Bill Pascrell, and this is why I’m running: To stop the tea party,” the Democratic congressman from New Jersey says in a new ad.

The tea party is also being used against Reps. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) and Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.), two top tea partiers in tough districts for the GOP, and was used in ads run by special election-winning Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) earlier this year.

Democrats say the issue works for them as they continue to define a Republican Party whose brand is already struggling.

“It’s no longer viewed as a populist, grass-roots organization, but a dangerous group with extremist views that don’t reflect the mainstream values of America’s middle class,” Democratic media strategist John Lapp said.

The tea party was mostly a blessing for Republicans in 2010. Some less-electable tea party candidates beat Republican establishment candidates in primaries and went on to defeat in the general election. But on the whole, the tea party spurred enthusiasm against President Obama and helped Republicans overcome an emerging problem with their own brand — a problem that persists until today. The Washington Post/ABC poll showed just 40 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the GOP, a new low.

Some Republicans say the tea party’s decline is largely due to what made it such a powerful force to begin with: a grass-roots emphasis and lack of infrastructure.

“Some of the negatives come out of the fact that there isn’t anyone defending the tea party as a political party,” said GOP strategist Chris LaCivita. “They have as many factions as they do members, and speaking behind a cohesive central message is foreign to who they are, not only as a ‘party,’ but what they believe in.”

GOP strategist Brian Donahue said the Democrats’ strategy is “old hat.” And because the movement isn’t front and center anymore, it won’t matter as much come election time.

“The issues initially associated with the tea party movement have become more broadly embraced by the electorate at large, making the tea party less relevant than in 2010,” Donahue said.

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