04.14.11

The Tea Party's GOP Hit List

Watch out, moderates. Tea Party activists are outraged over Thursday’s budget vote—and they’re vowing to unseat GOP senators who caved to Dems. David A. Graham on their new hit list.

Wednesday afternoon, just after President Obama’s deficit-reduction speech, Amy Brighton was frustrated and disappointed. It just didn’t go far enough, wasn’t serious about cuts, and was the old Washington way of doing things, she said.

But Brighton wasn’t talking about Obama’s speech—although the Tea Party activist from Medina, Ohio, didn’t like that much, either. She was talking about the deal John Boehner cut last week with the president and Senate Majority Harry Reid to fund the government for the rest of 2011.

“After the new crop of freshmen came in, I think all of us were quite hopeful that the Republicans, Speaker Boehner, and the Republican leadership were going to be serious about cutting spending and moving our country forward,” says Brighton. “Sadly, I think it’s just business as usual.”

Brighton’s anger at the deal—heightened by the revelation that the real cost-cutting is far less than the announced $38 billion sticker price—is a common refrain for Tea Partiers nationwide, and it arrives at a fortuitous time: groups across the country are planning rallies today and Saturday to coincide with Tax Day.

The one-two punch could be the kickoff for what Tea Party activists insist will be an even greater push than the 2010 election that gained the Republican Party 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate. It’s impossible to tell, of course, whether that prediction will come true, but there’s no question that what Tea Partiers see as a defeat on the budget battle, along with upcoming fights over raising the national debt ceiling and the 2012 budget, have right-wing activists hopping mad. They’re already drawing up lists of candidates they’d like to send home in 2012. Here are four GOP lawmakers in the hottest water with fiscally conservative activists—although as Marianne Gasiecki, a Tea Party organizer in Mansfield, Ohio, told me, no one, not even freshmen Tea Partiers who entered office after the midterms, can consider himself or herself beyond reproach. “You want to give them a chance to prove themselves,” Gasiecki says. “We gave them a real good chance, and they’ve kind of shown their colors.”

“We gave them a real good chance, and they’ve kind of shown their colors.”

1. Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar

Long one of the more moderate members of the Senate Republican caucus, Lugar has become a much-wanted scalp for activists. It’s easy to see why: he’s a classic Senate dealmaker, he has a history of crossing the aisle for votes on issues like Supreme Court nominations, and he’s been in the Senate since 1977, giving him the hated epithet of “career politician.” His position on the budget has allowed challenger Richard Mourdock to score some points against the incumbent in the last week. Lugar supports the deal negotiated by Boehner, Reid, and Obama, and while he’s not alone among Republican senators on that, it exacerbates his precarious position. Add to that an apparent reversal on a budget-cutting measure last week (Lugar said it was a misunderstanding, Mourdock called it a flip-flop). Lugar has a formidable war chest headed into the primary, but he’ll need it. While some GOP incumbents face challenges from inexperienced, fringe candidates with little chance of winning, Lugar’s opponent—currently the state treasurer—is no joke. “Mourdock isn’t Christine O’Donnell,” says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, referring to the wacky and failed 2010 Delaware Senate candidate. “He’s been elected statewide twice.” And Lugar’s recent admonition that the Tea Party needs to “get real” didn’t win him any fans on the right. There’s not much polling in the race yet, but activist Jim Bratten sees a likely Lugar defeat on the horizon. “I think he’s in very serious danger,” he says.

2. Speaker John Boehner

Could the speaker of the House go down? Even before the budget deal there were calls for a primary challenge. But the odds of a sitting speaker losing his primary are extremely low, says Eric Rademacher, co-director of the Institute for Political Research at the University of Cincinnati, which is near Boehner’s suburban Ohio district. Boehner’s leadership of the party, however, is an entirely different question. As a longtime party insider, the tanned Ohioan was a strange fit for a resurgent caucus powered by freshman members. “We weren’t thrilled about the prospects of having Speaker Boehner as speaker, just because we didn’t believe he’d be the one to stand strong,” says Gasiecki—and so far, she has found her misgivings to be prescient. Not only was the size of cuts Boehner extracted disappointing to fiscal conservatives, the manner in which it was done didn’t sit well. “Part of what people are really frustrated by is the process,” says Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, a national umbrella group. “This is the kind of backroom deal that people are sick of: ‘We made it in private, we didn’t even include members of our own caucus.’” Activists watched with frustration as the House Republican leadership moved from a promise of $100 billion in cuts to a $32 billion figure, back up to $61 billion, and eventually down to the $38 billion with an asterisk. Their anger is focused on the speaker, who is described as too willing to compromise or too naïve about Democratic negotiators or not passionate enough—and uniformly denounced for not being “strong.” Amy Brighton put her attitude in stark terms: “Here’s the message that goes to Speaker Boehner and the Republican leadership: either step up or step aside.” There are already rumors of palace intrigue between Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (although activists seem to regard Cantor as an unknown quantity) and influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson cautiously broached the subject of Republican regime change this week. But Rademacher counsels caution before counting Boehner out. “The long-term view of the budget deal may be different than any short-term reaction he might receive,” he says. The bigger test could be whether the speaker is able to rally his party into a unified position as the 2012 election approaches.

3. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch

Hatch is of a kind with Lugar—an experienced Republican who suddenly finds his conservative bona fides in question as the deal-making traditions of the Senate fall out of favor. He’s widely expected to face a Tea Party primary challenge in 2012, and memories of Sen. Bob Bennett’s shocking primary defeat at the hands of current Sen. Mike Lee remain fresh in Utah. Even worse: Lee has said he won’t endorse Hatch if there is a race. But unlike Lugar, Hatch has gone out of his way to court the Tea Party, and Tea Party Express strategist Sal Russo even called him “the original Tea Partier.” Although he backed the Boehner-Reid deal, Hatch has led a push to tie a debt-ceiling increase to a balanced-budget amendment, an activist favorite.

4. Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe

In a state that just elected one of the more stridently conservative and anti-establishment governors imaginable, Snowe seems on the verge of disaster, and talk of a party switch has been in the air for months; the senator’s vote against defunding Planned Parenthood on Thursday is more fuel for the fire. But she also benefits from strange dynamics in Maine. Although Gov. Paul LePage is the state’s highest-profile Tea Partier, he’s not a good figurehead to lead a charge for a Tea Party challenger. Snowe’s late husband was LePage’s political mentor, and he’s vowed not to endorse a challenger; and even if he did, his propensity for gaffes has hurt his standing in the state—which already wasn’t great, given that he won less than 40 percent of the vote in his win. And even with two candidates already running against her, Snowe has gotten lucky. One, Scott D’Amboise, is a little-known political novice. The other, Andrew Ian Dodge, is also a piece of work. He announced his run in Washington, D.C., at the Conservative Political Action Conference, rather than in his home state, and his bizarre heavy-metal-meets-conservative-politics websitemakes him look like another Christine O'Donnell in the making.” The upshot: Snowe’s chance in hell for a moderate Republican might be pretty good after all.

David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.