LOS ANGELES – Doubters who thought the tea party would fade away can forget it. More than 70 of its favored candidates are on Nov. 2 ballots, and nearly three dozen are locked in competitive House races, according to a state-by-state analysis by The Associated Press.
From the hundreds of conservative activists who took up the cause in races this year, these candidates — mostly Republicans — emerged to capture nominations and are running with the support of loosely organized tea party groups that are furious at the government.
Some of the candidates are political newcomers who have struggled to organize and raise money and have little chance of winning election. In some states, tea party groups have been divided over whether to even back candidates or become active in campaigns.
But about 35 candidates appear to be waging campaigns that have put them ahead or within striking distance of their opponents, according to the AP analysis.
Candidates with tea party ties are favored to win in Republican-leaning districts in Indiana and South Carolina. Several are running strong in rural districts in the West and the suburbs of several major cities. Three candidates aligned with the tea party are in tight races in Michigan, which has the second highest unemployment rate in the nation at 13.1 percent.
The tea party's legions of backers have Democrats fearing that 2010 could be the reverse of 2008, when 15 million first-time voters helped the Democrats win control of the White House as well as Congress.
Many Republicans are concerned, too.
Jim Bennett, who saw his father, Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, dispatched by tea party activists who flooded the state Republican convention in May, described a movement motivated and energized "to burn down anything that had anything to do with Washington."
"I've decided the Republican Party in Utah doesn't exist anymore — it's the tea party and the Democrats," Jim Bennett, who managed his father's campaign, said months after the senator was defeated.
The deep vein of conservative anger was there in 2008, but "it's taken a different turn now that the Democrats have the White House," says Larry Grisolano, a media consultant to President Barack Obama's campaign. "Now they have something to be against."
Most of the House candidates with tea party support are unknown outside their home districts: a rancher, a pilot, a pizzeria owner, doctors and war veterans. Their political experience ranges from first-time candidates to House incumbents who have become closely identified with the movement, including Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Former Philadelphia Eagles lineman Jon Runyan is in his first campaign — a tight race in New Jersey's 3rd Congressional District. He was recruited by a New Jersey legislator. In Indiana, Jackie Walorski is a state legislator who won the endorsement of several tea party groups.
How much impact the movement will have in Congress next year depends in part on how many of the candidates win. More than a half-dozen tea party-backed Senate candidates, including Florida's Marco Rubio, Nevada's Sharron Angle, Colorado's Ken Buck and Alaska's Joe Miller, are in competitive races or even pulling ahead of their rivals.
They are relying on support of the movement's dedicated backers.
"There is nothing that will keep them from turning out," said Democratic pollster Andre Pineda, who has advised the Democratic National Committee this year.
"The real enthusiasm gap is between tea party folks and everybody else," Pineda said. On Election Day, "they will be there."
Thus, January could see a dramatic remaking of the congressional agenda, with the GOP possibly in control of one or both chambers.
Tea partiers' call for reining in government and cutting back spending could affect efforts to address the home foreclosure crisis and any administration attempts to kick-start the slow economic recovery with another stimulus measure. The movement's fierce opposition to Obama's health care overhaul could drive efforts to repeal the law.
Some tea party-backed candidates have called for phasing out Social Security or eliminating the Education Department or other federal agencies.
It's not clear to what degree new members aligned with the tea party would cooperate with Democrats — or even with centrist Republicans.
The tea party presence extends from Hawaii, where Republican John Willoughby credits his win in a three-way primary to the support of the Kona Tea Party and the Maui Tea Party No Ka Oi, to Arizona, where dentist Paul Gosar won the support of Sarah Palin and tea party activists and knocked off an establishment Republican in the state's 1st Congressional District primary.
Gosar is trying to oust Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in the largely rural district. Tea partiers have been going door to door for him, seeking votes.
If he's elected, slowing spending and cutting the federal debt is "going to be the mantra," Gosar says. "We've got to make sure the government is cut back."
In the bucolic Hudson Valley of New York, Republican Nan Hayworth has tea party backing in a close race with Democratic Rep. John Hall, whose campaign has depicted her as a fringe candidate. To Hayworth, it's Hall and Washington Democrats who are out of the mainstream.
Tea party members "are insisting we pay careful attention to the size and scope of the federal government," says Hayworth, a member of the Hudson Valley Patriots. "People are acutely sensitive" to the growth of Washington spending.
In Michigan, three candidates aligned with the tea party are in tight races. In Detroit's northern suburbs, former Army officer Rocky Raczkowski is counting on tea party clout to help him defeat first-term Democratic Rep. Gary Peters.
The tea party is a network of loosely connected community groups — not an established political party with official nominees — so there is some debate about any list of candidates aligned with the movement. Even within the tea party there often is disagreement among rival groups about the legitimacy of candidates claiming tea party credentials, particularly between national and local organizations.
In identifying candidates, the AP assessed factors including a candidate's history with the movement, the involvement of local leaders and activists in a campaign, endorsements or support from tea party-affiliated groups and whether a candidate is running on a platform that dovetails with the movement's agenda.
In some cases, candidates defeated establishment-backed Republicans in primaries. In other cases, candidates had the backing of Palin, a tea party favorite, or are getting help from FreedomWorks or other groups sympathetic to the tea party cause.
Democrats — even those in party strongholds — are not dismissing the challenge.
Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff holds a nearly 20-point registration edge in his suburban Los Angeles district, but he sent voters a two-page letter contending that the election of tea party-backed Republican John Colbert would mean the end of Medicare and the Environmental Protection Agency.
"His campaign is no joke," wrote Schiff, who carried the district with 69 percent of the vote two years ago. "We have seen tea party radicals elected in state after state. We cannot take this threat lightly."
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