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Al Hunt: Tea party has taken control of election agenda

With the midterm elections five weeks away, the tea party already is the big winner of 2010.

This anti-government, grassroots Republican offshoot has rattled the party establishment — making former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin its most prominent 2012 presidential contender — and dominated the debate this campaign season.

The tea partiers believe they're on the cutting edge of a revolution: the "future of politics," as Palin says. More likely, they're a short-term catalyst for Republicans and a long-term problem.

Nevertheless, their victories are impressive — toppling the Republican Party's choices in Senate races from Alaska to Delaware, with Nevada, Colorado and Kentucky in between. Scores of House candidates around America have embraced the tea party agenda.

The effect on non-tea party Republicans is palpable. The party's 2008 presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has shifted right on issues from immigration to tax cuts after being challenged by a tea party-type candidate. The former maverick is going to the Tucson tea party's rally Oct. 9.

Presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, always a good weather vane, is assiduously courting the group. Immediately after tea party candidates Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware won upset primary victories, Romney embraced them with campaign contributions.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a non-movement right conservative, has embraced the tea party's general anti-immigration posture; he actually endorsed changing the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to bar citizenship for children born in America to undocumented immigrants.

Karl Rove, once an arbiter of conservative sentiment, in a moment of serious analysis on Fox News criticized O'Donnell the night she won the primary, saying her extremism made her unelectable. Tea party Republicans assailed Rove, who quickly backtracked and then bragged about funneling money to O'Donnell's campaign. There are shades of the French Revolution here.

The tea party agenda isn't well-defined, though it is anti-government, anti-spending, anti-immigration and anti-compromise politics. In an America beset by a 9.6 percent unemployment rate and plenty of anxiety and anger, there is a receptive audience.

A number of Republican strategists say there is little evidence the tea party agenda will turn off voters. That holds true for a midterm election, which often is a referendum on the incumbent party rather than a choice. It usually isn't applicable when a party acquires power, or in a presidential election year. A number of the most prominent tea party candidates this year embrace views that might not appeal to swing voters.

More than a few House Republican candidates talk about privatizing Social Security and cutting back on federal support for Medicare. That won't sit well with senior citizens, a majority of whom are expected to vote Republican in November.

Senate candidates include Alaska's Joe Miller, who has said unemployment compensation is unconstitutional; Colorado's Ken Buck, who says he opposes the principle of separation of church and state; Nevada's Angle, who said the Obama-inspired $20 billion fund for Louisiana oil-spill victims that BP was required to create was a "slush fund"; O'Donnell, who equated masturbation with adultery; and Kentucky's Rand Paul, who decried the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The tea party's official Contract From America 10-point agenda isn't so incendiary, though calls for a balanced budget, a single flat tax rate and lower taxes, including those on capital gains and estates, are a challenging policy prescription.

Some of the money behind the tea party movement or its offshoots has little in common with grassroots populism. The New Yorker magazine recently detailed the ties with the multibillionaire Koch brothers, who privately and aggressively pursue both ultraconservative policies as well as provisions favoring their far-flung corporate empire.

And one tea party offshoot demands that "special interests be eliminated." That would be enough to give heartburn to a tea party supporter such as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, formerly a rich, important Washington, D.C., lobbyist.

This movement isn't tolerant of dissent within the ranks, which may cause some other Republican politicians indigestion. For example, this year, the tea party took over the Maine Republican Party convention and adopted platforms that called for a 12-year term limit for senators, ending the congressional health care plan, opposing abortion and abolishing the Federal Reserve Board.

None of this is supported by the state's three-term Republican senator, Olympia Snowe, who is up for re-election in 2012. She could be vulnerable to a challenge from the right in a small-turnout primary. If she became an independent, she'd probably be safe for life.

And one 2012 Republican presidential hopeful may well seize an opportunity and run as the anti-tea party candidate; that used to be called a Big Tent Republican.

All that may or may not happen. On this Nov. 2, however, the tea will be flowing.

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