"Tea party" Republicans aren't the only candidates poised to make inroads this year - moderate Republicans are surging from Illinois to California, and in several instances proving they can best tea-party-powered conservatives at the polls.
Take the Illinois Republican Senate primary: Patrick Hughes, a developer and political newcomer, seemed to have the wind at his back as a staunch fiscal conservative and favorite of the tea party movement. His chief rival, Rep. Mark Kirk, was routinely blasted as a RINO - Republican in Name Only - for his more moderate record, which includes votes for cap-and-trade emissions legislation and the bank bailouts.
But Mr. Kirk won the Feb. 2 primary easily, capturing 56 percent of the vote against Mr. Hughes, who took 19 percent. Three other challengers split the rest of the vote.
It's possible the stars may be aligning for moderate Republicans in 2010. With the nation focused on the economy and wars in the Middle East, moderate candidates may be able to tip-toe around the hot-button social issues that can trip them up in right-leaning primaries.
"This really is a good time for moderate Republicans," said Charles Moran, national spokesman for the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican group. "We need to take this opportunity right now to elect candidates like Mark Kirk who are where they need to be on fiscal responsibility and national defense, and aren't getting tripped up on social issues like they normally would be."
Other states also feature moderate Republicans running ahead of their conservative rivals. In the Colorado Senate primary contest, polls show former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton with a comfortable lead over her more conservative opponents, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and former state Sen. Tom Wiens.
In California's Senate primary race, conservative state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore trails both former Rep. Tom Campbell and former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina. The gubernatorial primary, meanwhile, features moderate Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, running well ahead of state insurance commissioner and tax-cut advocate Steve Poizner.
Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, a longtime standard-bearer of eastern Republican moderates, is expected to coast to victory in the GOP Senate primary without serious conservative opposition.
To say that the Republican electorate is going centrist is to misread the recent poll results, say conservatives. In the Illinois primary, Mr. Hughes had little time to get out his message, given the state's short primary season. When conservatives do have the time, they're more successful.
In Florida, for example, former House Speaker Marco Rubio was seen as a long-shot candidate when he first announced he would challenge Gov. Charlie Crist for the Republican Senate nomination. Seven months later, the conservative Mr. Rubio overtook the more moderate governor in the polls, and now leads by 12 percentage points, according to a Rasmussen Reports survey released this month.
Mr. DeVore may trail his moderate rivals now, but the California primary isn't until June. No less a political eminence than columnist George Will predicted Sunday on ABC-TV's "This Week" that Mr. DeVore would come from behind to win the primary.
When moderate Republicans do well, it's often because they're running to the right. Colorado's Mr. Norton has tried to win conservative support by calling for a balanced-budget amendment, a two-thirds vote in Congress to raise taxes, and a moratorium on " earmarks."
Not everyone's buying it. Fairly or not, Mrs. Norton is viewed by some as an establishment candidate thrust into the race by national Republicans who didn't believe Mr. Buck could win. Mrs. Norton has also suffered from guilty by association in that her brother-in-law is Charlie Black, a prominent Republican consultant and close associate of Arizona moderate Republican Sen. John McCain.
"We had a candidate in Ken Buck who had raised $250,000 in the first quarter. He did not need anybody's help," said former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo. "Jane Norton was a McCain campaign chair. Nice lady, but she's not a conservative.
State Sen. Josh Penry, a conservative, has defended Mrs. Norton's bona fides. "The notion that she's 'John McCain lite' - she disagreed with him on the bank bailout, on ANWR, on climate change. She's running on a conservative reform message," said Mr. Penry in a debate with Mr. Tancredo on KOA-AM in Denver.
Mrs. Norton has even appeared at tea party gatherings in an effort to gain support, a sign that conservatives have the winning message.
"I think conservatives see a different picture out there with all the candidates trying to wrap themselves in tea party and limited-government principles," said a senior aide to a top conservative senator. "If moderates have succeeded, it's because they've as they've come our way and embraced less spending, less debt, less government control. When everyone is trying to out-conservative each other, that's a sign of success."
Charlie Johnston, a longtime Illinois campaign consultant who served as Mr. Hughes' political director, said the candidate's loss had less to do with his message than with the party establishment's efforts to control the outcome.
"The establishment types hold all the levers in Illinois, so they were able to shut off the money," said Mr. Johnston. "Among institutional givers, the word was put out that if you supported Patrick Hughes, he'd better win.
Another problem was the state tea party movement's inability to unite behind a single candidate. Although Mr. Hughes was viewed as the main tea party champion, other Republican primary hopefuls ended up picking up endorsements from the grass-roots movement's many local chapters.
"I think the tea party movement is the most important movement of my lifetime, but it's not sophisticated," said Mr. Johnston. "They learned a lesson here. If you can get conservatives united, if you can get them behind a Patrick Hughes, we either lose a close election or we win a close election."
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