Does the GOP Have a Tea Party Problem?

A question hovering around the tea party movement has been: will it hurt Republicans at the polls in November, generating third-party candidates and sucking votes away from the GOP?

Polling released this past week by Quinnipiac says this is a possibility: with tea party candidates running in a generic race, Republicans go from winners to losers, with just 25% of the vote. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for its part, has put together a list of races involving conservative challengers, some running as third-party candidates, advertised as "Palin's Primaries."

I don't know the answer to this question for sure, but I do know this: top tea party organizers are not interested in supporting third-party candidates, or in forming official Tea Party political parties in states, which means it's unlikely we'll see an organized movement to form Tea Parties and make trouble in GOP-stronghold districts.

In other words: the tea party movement won't rise up to challenge the GOP, on a national scale, any time soon.

"Personally, I think it's better to run within the established parties and try to change the parties," said Jenny Beth Martin, national co-chair of the group Tea Party Patriots. Martin's group claims to have 15 million members; after surveying local organizers, Tea Party Patriots leaders put out a statement making clear that it did not support the formation of a Tea Party political party.

With guidance from the Dick Armey-led FreedomWorks, the tea party movement figures to target, in organized fashion, about four House races and four Senate races this fall. None of those include third-party bids.

As far as third-party candidates go, it's more likely that individuals will decide to run, without the encouragement of state or national organizers, seeking to claim the tea party mantle.

But it's questionable whether such candidates would garner enough support to make a difference, despite the findings from Quinnipiac. It's one thing to tell a pollster you like the idea of a tea party candidate--and, to be sure, some conservatives are upset with the Republican Party, based on TARP and Bush-era spending--but another thing to vote for a candidate who is polling low, especially if a Republican candidate has tacked sufficiently to the right.

We saw a tea partier run in the Massachusetts Senate race, but Joe Kennedy (no relation to the Kennedy family, or to the other Joe Kennedy) only got 1% of the vote.

A tea partier has stepped up to run in the Nevada Senate race, but Scott Ashjian is already encountering some troubles, and national tea party organizers say they haven't actually heard of him. Tea party organizers say a tea partier has stepped up to run in a Florida congressional race...but they speculate that the candidate is a liberal plant. Regardless, it appears remote that tea party activists will coalesce behind either.

It seems to be a case of hype: the idea of a third-party conservative affecting a major race sounds intriguing, but it may not actually happen.

What's more likely is that conservative primary candidates will either 1) win Republican primaries, or 2) force establishment candidates to tack to the right. And that's something Democrats have hoped would happen for some time, as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee circulated a memo to that effect in January.

There are some sizeable races where that could happen--most notably in Kentucky, where the very conservative Rand Paul (son of Ron Paul) could defeat the less conservative Trey Grayson in the GOP Senate primary, though Paul actually polls just as well against the Democrats as Greyson does.

FreedomWorks and the tea partiers are backing Senate candidates Marco Rubio in Florida, Paul in Kentucky, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, and Mike Lee in Utah. If those candidates start polling behind Democrats as 2010 progresses, that will be the sign that tea-partyism has forced the Republican Party too far to the right.

In House races, and in assorted other Senate races as well, there will be pressure for Republicans to sign onto health care repeal pledges, and, once tea partiers unveil their Contract from America on April 15, there will be pressure to support whatever principles that document winds up including. And that could hurt them at the ballot boxes.

But it's unlikely tea partiers will undercut the GOP's strength by running, en masse, as independent challengers.