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Are Once Libertarian Tea Party Candidates Becoming Social Conservatives?

Back in the spring of 2010, commentators marveled at the strict fiscal focus of the Tea Party. Fast-forward eight months, and it's a different picture, as candidates speak stridently about social issues on the trail. What's behind the switch? Here are three factors at work.

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Democrat Sen. Michael Bennet (left) and Republican Ken Buck, candidates for Senate in Colorado, during a televised debate Sunday in which Buck compared homosexuality to alcoholism (William B. Plowman / NBC-AP)

Back in the spring of 2010, commentators marveled at the strict fiscal focus of the Tea Party. Kate Zernike, the crackerjack reporter who covers the movement for The New York Times, wrote, "For decades, faith and family have been at the center of the conservative movement. But as the Tea Party infuses conservatism with new energy, its leaders deliberately avoid discussion of issues like gay marriage or abortion." It seemed the new breed of conservatives was too focused on shrinking government and balancing the budget to deal with messy, divisive issues of morality.

Fast-forward eight months, and it's a different picture. During a televised debate Sunday, Colorado GOP Senate candidate Ken Buck said that homosexuality was a choice—but added that it had some genetic factors, and therefore was comparable to alcoholism. Sharron Angle, the Nevada Senate candidate, has some of the strictest abortion politics in the country, opposing it even in cases of rape and incest. And almost every notable stand taken by Delaware Senate contender Christine O'Donnell has been on social issues—from masturbation to creationism to abortion. What's behind the switch? Here are three factors at work.

1. The Tea Party is Really the GOP. No, they're not actually the same—despite what some liberal pundits and the Democratic Party suggest. But it's also clear that there is huge overlap. A Bloomberg poll last week showed that 80 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters plan to vote Republican on Election Day. Even if Tea Party rallies and groups are focused narrowly on fiscal issues, it doesn't mean their supporters don't have the same socially conservative beliefs that have dominated mainstream Republican politics for three decades, so it's only natural that candidates wishing to appeal to them would mix some morality into their message. Liberal blogger Matt Yglesias argues that the GOP's embrace of libertarian positions is just the newest version of the old "fusionism" of the Republican Party in which libertarianism becomes a means to social conservatism.

2. The Candidates Aren't Really Tea Partiers. Perhaps it's an inevitable consequence of the Tea Party's influence, but it's hard to find a Republican candidate this year who hasn't been identified as a Tea Party candidate, too. The label is starting to lose its value as a litmus test for candidates, as experienced, repeat candidates attempt to rebrand themselves. Even Sarah Palin, the most famous face associated with the movement, was a regular Republican before (remember how she came to power as the GOP's vice presidential pick?). So voter beware: the Tea Party label doesn't necessarily mean the wearer is any more serious about fiscal discipline than the old-line Republicans who movement members disdain. It just means the wearer is shrewed enough to put on the mantle.

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3. It's Just Election-Year Politics and Will Quickly Fade. Candidates say all kinds of things on the trail. But that doesn't mean they believe them. Besides, says John Samples of the libertarian Cato Institute, most voters—and most stump speeches—are still focused on the economy. It's just smart electoral politics; there's no good reason to bring in divisive issues when conservatives are united on fiscal discipline. But will the more staunchly libertarian members of the Tea Party—the 20 percent who aren't Republicans, or who are adamant that libertarianism means the government shouldn't decide who can and can't get married—be alienated? Perhaps, Samples says, but he hasn't seen it yet. Indeed, despite hopeful prophecies to the contrary as far back as February, there haven't been any high-profile defections. Part of it is that libertarians are holding their noses for the time being. "The socially conservative emphasis didn’t really work very well as an issue and they don’t want to blow this one," Samples says. And in fact, it's the values voters who are starting to panic, he adds: "Two or three weeks ago I was at the Family Research Council, and there seemed to be an almost desperate sense that the train was leaving the station and they weren’t on it."

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