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Heading for the exit.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Tea party members and supporters are claiming victory in Republican primary elections for U.S. Senate held so far this year, even though most of the candidates they've backed have lost.

They've lost the battles, they say, but won the war because they've forced most of the winners to take more tea party-friendly - that is, more stridently conservative - positions to get elected.

Maybe so. But the fact remains that in almost all the GOP Senate primaries where tea party-supported candidates were opposed by establishment Republicans, the more conservative candidates lost, usually by sizable margins. And that's contrary to the last two election cycles in which some tea party-supported primary candidates upset better-known, more-experienced and better-financed Republicans only to lose to their Democratic opponents in the fall.

Most of the focus of the 2014 election is on the Senate, because if Republicans can make a net gain of six seats on Nov. 4 they'll control Congress, and that likely would handcuff President Obama in his final two years in office. Republicans took control of the House in 2010 and are expected keep it.

This year's Senate primaries got off to an uneven start for the tea party. GOP establishment candidates prevailed in West Virginia, Texas and North Carolina, but Ben Sasse, the president of a small liberal arts college who was endorsed by Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, cruised to victory in Nebraska. Then came last Tuesday's primaries.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell defeated businessman and tea party-backed challenger Matt Bevin in Kentucky. Businessman David Perdue and Congressman Jack Kingston earned spots in a July 22 runoff election, defeating two tea party-favored candidates seeking the nomination to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss in Georgia. And Monica Wehby defeated a more conservative Republican, state Rep. Jason Conger, for the right to face Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley in November.

Still ahead are primaries in Mississippi, Tennessee, Kansas, Iowa and South Carolina in which incumbent or establishment Senate candidates are either leading or already projected to win.

Tuesday's election results made it seem as if the tea party is whistling past the graveyard when it says its extreme positions on issues such as federal spending, immigration reform, climate change and Obamacare have been fully absorbed into the Republican Party's core message. One reason to doubt that is Kentucky.

Obama is hugely unpopular in Kentucky, where his disapproval rating ranges between 60 percent and 70 percent. And McConnell has become unpopular in his home state for compromising with Democrats and the administration in trying to overcome some of the gridlock that's stymied Congress since the 2010 elections.

Still, McConnell got 60 percent of Tuesday's vote, even after announcing in March that he believes establishment Republicans "are going to crush" hard-line conservatives "everywhere" this year.

Then there are the polls, which indicate most Americans have tired of the tea party's negativity and bullying tactics. One of the latest, by CBS News, found that only 15 percent of Americans surveyed May 16-19 said they support the tea party movement, compared to 75 percent who said they didn't.

CBS has done the poll eight times since February 2012, and that's the lowest level of tea party support since the poll started (support peaked at 31 percent in November 2010). Among Republicans, support went from 56 percent "yes" in July 2010 to 58 percent "no" in this month's poll.

Democrats hope the tea party has succeeded in pulling the GOP far enough to the right that most moderate and independent voters will be turned off in the fall and vote for Democrats. That could happen.

But more moderate Republicans also could find greater acceptance from middle-of-the-road voters, and that could spell trouble for congressional Democrats and the president.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 27, 2014
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