Will the Tea Party movement help or hurt Republicans?

Originally published in The Examiner.

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Third party contenders have been known to hurt their ideological neighbors during general elections.

Most Democrats will say as much when asked about the 2000 presidential elections and Ralph Nader. And a Mason-Dixon poll suggests the same may happen with the Republicans in Florida’s Senate Elections (assuming Democratic voters keep to their party).

So, will Tea Party energy help Republicans?

In the short run, even Republican stalwarts like Arizona Senator John McCain were facing tough opposition in the primaries. Utah Senator Robert Bennett lost his party’s support for the 2010 election, essentially making him a lame duck Senator. And Tea Party candidates won primaries in as many as eight states. As the Bloomberg article suggests, such events are happening with striking consistency. But is this necessarily bad for Republicans?

On one hand, they give up the incumbent advantage. Sitting elected officials are able to raise more money, use their government-provided staff and travel allowances, take advantage of name recognition and access to donors. They also obviously have experienced campaign staff that has succeeded at least once before.

On the other hand, however, Republicans could benefit from Tea Party sentiment to get people out to the polls. As Obama’s 2008 campaign demonstrated, the demand for change is a powerful motivator, especially for younger voters. Even so, a rather strong plurality of Tea Party supporters in both Gallup and CNN polls (actual data linked in the article) are drawn from the 30-49 age bracket. Fresher voters may not help the Tea Party as they did Obama.

Ultimately, the question of Republican advantage in November depends on how appealing Tea Party candidates can be to mainstream voters in general elections. Many have suggested that such candidates have a very narrow political base and can even alienate moderate Republican voters.

Ellen Comisso, comparative politics professor at UC San Diego, indicated that if the political system fostered smaller parties, “the moderate and conservative Republicans might split into two parties”. The same may not be true of Democrats who “just don’t all agree but the emotion isn’t there”.

If even a portion of those angry moderate Republican voters defect, the net result could be a win for the Democrats. In the end, that may be the decisive demographic: Republicans who supported the so-called “RINOs” that  Tea Party activists seek to dethrone.

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