Skip to content

Democrats Try to Tie Republicans to Tea Party

The White House and Congressional Democrats have begun stepping up attacks on “extremist” tea party views that they say are infecting the Republican Party, but they are wary of going too far and alienating the most enthusiastic group of voters this cycle.

The Democrats’ strategy is nuanced: Rather than invest in expensive television ads, party leaders have been weaving the connection into their talking points. The move comes after two tea party candidates won Senate Republican nominations in this month’s primaries — Christine O’Donnell of Delaware and Joe Miller of Alaska. Both candidates beat more mainstream Republicans who were expected to win handily.

But Democrats say they don’t have to do much to convince the public that there is a link between the GOP and the tea party. Candidates with the movement’s backing are running as conservative, independent-minded Republicans.

“To be honest, I don’t think we have to try too hard to link them because they are linked. In people’s minds, they understand that the tea party is really a core component of the Republican Party,” Sen. Mary Landrieu said.

The Louisiana Democrat pointed to “a real battle being waged right now” in the Republican ranks over whether to embrace conservative but pragmatic views or to take a more “extremist” tack. She called it “amusing” to see Republicans struggling for a clear identity in recent weeks because “it’s normally the Democrats that are disorganized.”

[IMGCAP(1)]Sen. Mark Begich agreed that the GOP is already linked to the tea party in the public’s eye.

“I just know that in Alaska we have a tea party guy who’s the Republican nominee. So, it is what it is,” the Democrat said.

Senior Democratic aides emphasized that their strategy for dealing with the tea party must be subtle, and they have denied a New York Times piece over the weekend that suggested the White House was mulling a national ad campaign that would frame the Republican Party as taken over by its radical tea party fringe. Still, Democrats aren’t denying that they are trying to make people aware of the link.

“It is a real and obvious connection that we think will turn independent voters away from the GOP,” one senior House Democratic aide said.

Vice President Joseph Biden said the alternative to Democratic control of Congress is “the Republican tea party” during a Monday fundraiser for Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D). And on Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) noted that the public is “becoming more and more aware of the radical policies being proposed by some Republican nominees” during a sit-down with reporters.

President Barack Obama for the first time directly called out tea party members earlier this week over their lack of concrete solutions to the nation’s fiscal crisis. “It’s not enough just to say, ‘Get control of spending.’ I think it’s important for you to say, ‘You know, I’m willing to cut veterans’ benefits,’ or, ‘I’m willing to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits,’ or, ‘I’m willing to see these taxes go up,'” Obama said Monday during a Washington, D.C., town hall.

“What you can’t do, which is what I’ve been hearing a lot from the other side, is saying, ‘We’re going to control government spending. We’re going to propose $4 trillion of additional tax cuts,’ and that magically somehow things are going to work,” Obama said.

A White House official said to expect Obama’s “core argument” to continue to be about “moving forward versus moving backward” as he campaigns for Democratic candidates and incumbents this fall.

But the White House is well aware that the tea party will play a role — perhaps pivotal — in individual races, said the official, and it is “often in the position of putting the GOP on the defensive, especially when some of the tea party candidates say things the GOP leadership believes but won’t say.”

A House Democratic leadership aide spelled out what some of those tea party ideas include: “privatizing Social Security, ending Medicare as we know it, repealing needed regulations on Wall Street and outsourcing jobs overseas.”

Not that all lawmakers think the tea party will largely function as a thorn in the side for Republicans before the election.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) cautioned against writing off a movement that he said represents general frustration with Washington. “Whether it’s Democrats, Republicans or independents, there’s a lot of people who are really just fed up with our government,” he said.

Sen. Ben Nelson suggested that Democrats try talking with tea party followers, rather than attacking them.

“There are some fine people who are concerned about the size and growth of government, concerned about tax structure, and concerned about the future, and what we ought to do is have a dialogue,” the Nebraska Democrat said.

Sen. Bob Casey said he thinks the tea partyers have “certainly added energy to their side,” although it has brought new problems as well.

“They’ve got to decide what their party stands for, and right now it’s certainly heavily weighted towards the hard right. It may not be a huge problem for them in November, but I think it will be going forward,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said.

And while some Republicans have voiced disappointment that establishment candidates have lost to tea party upstarts, they are turning attention to the positive aspects of citizens getting more involved in the political process.

“The people are the tea party this election,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said. “I think that’s where the Democrats are missing the point.”

“I can’t imagine any elected official making fun of people becoming highly involved in the electoral process. I just don’t see how that’s healthy,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch said he thinks the tea party “deserves a lot of credit” just for trying to make a difference on pressing issues.

“I don’t think it’s going to hurt us a bit. They’re good people. They’re just angry,” said the Utah Republican, whose home-state colleague Sen. Bob Bennett (R) lost a shot at another term because of the influence of the tea party in the state’s nominating convention system.

“I’ll stand up for the tea party every time,” Hatch said.

Steven T. Dennis and Anna Palmer contributed to this report.