The Richmond Register


July 10, 2011

Republicans should pay very close attention to the Tea Party

Frankfort — FRANKFORT — If you wonder how influential the tea party is in Republican circles, you aren’t watching very closely.

David Brooks, the moderately conservative columnist for the New York Times and a protégé of modern conservatism’s founder, William F. Buckley, wrote a column this week in which he said the Republican Party “may no longer be a normal party” because it’s become “infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.”

Brooks’ point was that congressional Republicans have already won more concessions from Democrats than anyone could have expected just a year ago, yet they are afraid to budge on minor revenue increases in exchange for dramatic cuts in spending. He doesn’t mention the tea party, but who else is driving the debate?

If you don’t believe that, you also aren’t paying close enough attention to the Republican leader, Kentucky’s senior U.S. Senator, Mitch McConnell. The man who sees Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser,” as a role model and who rounded up votes during the Bush administration for tax cuts, prescription drug plans and support for two unfunded wars is suddenly unwilling to compromise — not on tax rates but on relatively arcane tax loopholes benefiting only the very wealthy, at a time when the country approaches a crisis on the national debt limit — a decision some say could create worldwide economic havoc. Back home, McConnell’s field representatives reportedly now attend local tea party meetings.

After McConnell publicly endorsed Trey Grayson for the U.S. Senate last year and then watched tea party favorite Rand Paul swamp Grayson in the primary, McConnell quickly (though not effortlessly) allied himself with Paul. During the primary, some in the McConnell camp saw Paul as a certain loser in the general election and were amazed to see Paul cruise to victory and then move quickly into the national spotlight. Paul appears on television more often than the Republican leader. McConnell now must watch his conservative Republican flank in the Senate as closely as he watches Barack Obama and Harry Reid.

In Kentucky there are Republican Party concerns about the insurgents as well. They deny it, but party leaders worry the organizational skills of the tea party — demonstrated by the surprising showing of Phil Moffett in the Republican primary for governor — might soon be directed toward the party’s organizational structure. That’s what is behind rumors the party planned to re-write some of its rules a year earlier than it normally takes up those issues.

Then this week came rumors (accurate it turns out) that Jamie Comer, the Republican candidate for Agriculture Commissioner, had hired Lexington Tea Party leader and blogger Mica Sims to organize a grassroots get-out-the-vote effort in the fall campaign. As the rumor spread in Republican circles, phone lines burned up and David Williams, the Republican candidate for governor, reached for heartburn remedies. Sims has been an outspoken, relentless critic of Williams. Other down-ticket Republican candidates wondered what is going on and more importantly what it might imply. What is McConnell’s reaction? Does it mean Comer worries Williams can’t win and his own fate hinges on his ability to attract Tea Party activists to offset a potential drag at the top of the ticket? We can only speculate about McConnell’s reaction, but he no doubt found it interesting.

Many believe the Tea Party is a temporary phenomenon. I’m sure of only one thing: at least for the present it’s especially dangerous for Republicans to underestimate them.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at cnhifrankfort.

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