The Tea Party’s 2012 Targets

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The midterm elections aren’t even over, but some tea partiers are already zeroing in on their targets for 2012. Amped up by the big primary upsets this year, they’re sending warning shots to a host of Republican leaders who’ve dared to cross the aisle to work with the other side. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress, already has a conservative GOP primary opponent. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Indiana) have all drawn fire from the right wing of their party.

Their unforgivable sins? Snowe voted for the stimulus and the Senate version of the health care bill. Corker worked on the financial regulation bill with Democrats, though he ultimately voted against it. Hatch voted for TARP and also worked with Democrats on health reform, though he didn’t vote for it either. All three incumbents have shifted to the right in recent months, refusing to vote for major Democratic legislation. The Journal speculates that they might already be responding to pressure from the tea party’s right flank:

When the Senate recently voted on small-business tax breaks, the bill drew support from only two Republicans—both of whom are leaving office at the end of this term. Centrist efforts to compromise on an extension of expiring Bush-era tax cuts fizzled. Even Ms. Snowe, a perennial swing vote on taxes, resisted agreement with Democrats on the issue.

There’s no doubt that someone like Snowe will be a perennial target of right-wing conservatives. Back in her home state, she receives higher support from Democrats and Independents than Maine Republicans, 63 percent of whom said in September they’d support a more conservative candidate for her seat. As I explained in my story about Paul LePage’s unexpected rise, a tea party-fueled backlash has pushed the Maine GOP even farther to the right. Activists seem determined to take Snowe out next. That has prompted speculation that she could leave the GOP to become an Independent, thus avoiding the fate of Bob Bennett, Mike Castle, and tea party casualties.

On the other hand, the political dynamics could end up shifting quickly after the election, particularly if the Republicans gain a majority in either house. As The Daily Beast’s Benjy Sarlin reports, right-wing activists insist they won’t let up after the election on issues like the deficit. But their demands for a balanced budget will be essentially impossible to fulfill—and even Republican leaders like John Boehner tacitly acknowledge as much.

These kinds of rifts and tensions will only grow after the election, and it won’t just be long-hated moderates like Snowe who will be taking the heat. Though the Senate could include right-wingers like Sharron Angle and Rand Paul, the GOP wave is also likely to usher in more moderate voices like Mark Kirk and Rob Portman as the Republican ranks expand. Republicans will be under a great deal more pressure to put forward their own legislative proposals, rather than simply oppose the Democratic agenda, and tea party arguments about whether they have, in fact, gone far enough are likely to divide the movement—much as liberal activists were split over the direction of the Democrats’ health reform bill. The tea party may have a hard time agreeing exactly who they should target next.

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