The tea-party-affiliated FreedomWorks PAC continued its rollout of midterm endorsements today with an announcement of support for New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte in her Senate race. With just more than a week to go before voters take to the polls, Ayotte’s nod from the insurgent conservative movement spotlights the elephant in the room that the GOP will soon have to face.
Originally, some elements of the tea party movement didn't want her. Last month, Ayotte narrowly defeated Ovide Lamontagne in a GOP primary that split two top leaders of the grassroots conservative movement. Sarah Palin backed Ayotte, while Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., supported Lamontagne.
Now, Ayotte’s candidacy is the rope getting pulled from both sides of this Republican tug-of-war.
While the Washington GOP establishment is reportedly courting Ayotte as the “younger, dynamic female senator” emblematic of their new moderate façade, she's apparently seeking the tea party's seal of approval.
"We only get into races when we are asked,” said FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon, indicating that Ayotte sought out the group's support. Brandon said FreedomWorks made the endorsement only after gaining "consensus from our guys on the ground -- we can’t endorse if our activists’ membership is spilt."
But Ayotte’s dichotomy is a microcosm of what the GOP could face after Election Day. At a University of Maryland conference on the tea party and midterm elections last week, panelists said the tea party’s success in the midterms indicates a potential change in the political makeup of the GOP.
“It’s your classic protest movement," said Clarus Research Group President Ronald Faucheux, "and they’re having a really big effect on repositioning Republicans from being the party of Bush to being the party of something else entirely.”
While there is no definitive answer to whether tea partiers are helping or hurting Republicans, Faucheux said, the movement is transforming the GOP’s image.
More immediately significant, said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., is how this divide will play out when tea partiers get elected to Congress -- not just in terms of their relationship with mainstream Republicans, but also with congressional Democrats.
“They’ll have to sit down and figure it out -- and they’ll have to pick their fights carefully,” said Davis. “It will be interesting to see how individuals jockey for control over the next few years.”