WASHINGTON - The conservative "Tea Party" movement's rise within the Republican Party gives President Barack Obama's Democrats an opportunity to limit their losses in the Nov. 2 U.S. congressional elections, the Democratic Party chief said Sunday.
Republicans are aiming to regain control of the House and perhaps even the Senate in the elections. Tea Party candidates have knocked off better-known Republican establishment candidates in key primary races.
The latest example came last week when conservative upstart Christine O'Donnell beat nine-term congressman Michael Castle in Delaware's Republican Senate primary. Castle, a moderate targeted by Tea Party conservatives, had been forecast to win the general election, but Democratic nominee Chris Coons is now seen as having a good chance against O'Donnell.
"I think it's become very clear now ... that the control of the Republican Party is in Tea Party candidates who do not speak for independent or moderate voters at all," Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine said on CNN's "State of the Union" program.
"We have a feeling that we're going to do very, very well in closing that gap with independent voters between now and the second of November, because independents do not like what they see from this ascendant Tea Party and the Republican Party," Kaine added.
The struggling U.S. economy and a poisonous U.S. political atmosphere have made Obama's Democrats vulnerable in November.
Independent voters backed Obama in his 2008 presidential victory but opinion polls show them leaning toward Republican congressional candidates in the November elections.
The Tea Party, a loosely organized conservative political movement, has the backing of Republican conservatives, including 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, helping it emerge as a political insurgency movement.
Its candidates are harshly critical of Obama, government spending and taxes -- some calling for dismantling the Social Security retirement system -- and offer conservative social views. They also have attracted controversy.
"I DABBLED INTO WITCHCRAFT"
For example, O'Donnell has said "I dabbled into witchcraft" and she also spoke out against masturbation, citing her Christian views. And Rand Paul, who won the Republican Senate nomination in Kentucky, questioned part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed racial segregation.
O'Donnell canceled scheduled appearances on two Sunday television news interview programs.
Kaine said the Tea Party, by causing Republicans to run against one another, has become like "the Donner party" for Republicans. He was referring to the American pioneers who turned to cannibalism in the winter of 1846-47 to survive after being trapped by heavy snows in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
"It's knocking off Republicans left and right -- and giving us opportunities to win some very tough seats that six months ago we frankly thought we were probably not going to win," Kaine said.
Incumbent Republican Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, beaten by Tea Party-backed candidate Joe Miller in the Aug. 24 primary, has announced a write-in campaign to keep her seat.
Speaking Sunday on CNN, she accused the Tea Party movement of targeting her with "a mudslinging, smear -- just a terrible, terrible campaign, with lies and fabrications and mischaracterization."
Kaine said a sitting president's party on average loses 28 House seats and four Senate seats in congressional elections held two years after a presidential election. He predicted the Democrats will retain control of the House and Senate.
"I think the Republicans are moving way to the right of the American electorate," Kaine said.
"We're going to lose seats. We're not living in average times. When the economy is tough, that means that there's volatility in the electorate," Kaine added.
DeMint, also appearing on the CNN show, predicted that Republicans will regain control of the House and pick up Senate seats but "the chances of a majority in the Senate may not be that great."
Leading Republican figures including Karl Rove, a former senior political advisor to President George W. Bush, also have expressed reservations about the Tea Party.
Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," Rove said, "There are serious questions that have been raised about Miss O'Donnell's background, character, statements and previous actions." Rove said voters may focus on those types of questions rather than on dissatisfaction with Obama and his policies. (Editing by Philip Barbara)
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