Tea Party endorsements a double-edged sword for Republican candidates

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May 2, 2012 - 7:00pm

You may have heard of the Tea Party Express. The California-based political action committee formed in 2009 as a way to support the nationwide Tea Party movement. The group has worked as a rallying call for voters by touring around the United States, while also endorsing or promoting conservative candidates running for state or federal office. That particular morning, the PAC's two buses pulled into Lincoln's Antelope Park, greeted by an audience of about three dozen. The stage was soon set for one of the group's ringing endorsements.
 


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Tea Party Express has officially endorsed Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning as the GOP nominee for senate.


"We've come to Nebraska because we've endorsed Attorney General Jon Bruning for the United States Senate. He was our first endorsement," said Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express. "We feel like he is the one who can go up and win this seat. We can't afford to lose this Senate seat by one percent ever again."

But that endorsement has come as somewhat of a surprise. Since its inception, Tea Party Express has typically avoided endorsing members of the GOP establishment, opting instead for maverick conservatives. Bruning has found himself a member of the former, having been elected Nebraska Attorney General on three occasions.

But Kremer quickly pointed to Bruning as the most promising means to an end - that end being conservatives holding both of Nebraska's Senate seats. Bruning and fellow candidates Deb Fischer, Don Stenberg, Pat Flynn, Spencer Zimmerman and Sharyn Elander are vying for the seat left vacant by retiring Democrat Ben Nelson, a seat that's a key component in the battle for control of the U.S. Senate.

"Jon Bruning is a conservative, and he's run statewide races. We believe he has the ability to raise money," Kremer said. "We do believe he is the one who can win this race. At the end of the end, if you truly want to effect change, you have to change the players in the game."
 


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Dozens showed up for the first of two Tea Party Express rallies held in Lincoln and Omaha.


But not everyone placing themselves under the umbrella of Tea Party affiliation has agreed with the group's endorsement.

"Sometimes we work great with them when we're doing the same things, and sometimes we don't and we go our separate ways," said Max Pappas, executive director of the FreedomWorks political action committee.

Unlike the Tea Party Expresss, FreedomWorks has turned to Nebraska State Treasurer Don Stenberg as the GOP's best bet in the upcoming race.

Pappas said the decision came down to the group's vetting process and feedback from its members.

"We emailed our entire Nebraska list multiple times last fall. The support was overwhelming for Don Stenberg. We had a clear, consistent candidate," Pappas said. "Stenberg has the sort of background that's ideal for a group like mine because it's incredibly consistent. People are so sick of flip-floppers, where you can't figure out who they are. Nobody wonders about Don Stenberg; everybody knows what he believes in. More importantly, Don Stenberg knows what he believes in, and he's shown it over the years."


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Carl and Maianna Voigtsberger check out a T-shirt vendor at the Lincoln stop. Maianna is originally from Nebraska, but she and her husband now live in Cheyenne, where they're active in the Wyoming Tea Party movement.


The two national tea parties have split their primary preferences before, with mixed results. Over the past few years, Tea Party endorsements have proved to be a double-edged sword (the last round of senatorial races in 2010 showed that). While endorsements by Tea Party groups like Express and FreedomWorks helped propel political newcomers over establishment candidates in GOP primaries in other states, they often fizzled out in general elections. They've included Joe Miller of Alaska, Sharron Angle of Nevada and Christine O'Donnell of Delaware.

John Hibbing is a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He said Republican voters would be more likely to coalesce behind a candidate who best represents the issues most important to them and not necessarily rely on the endorsements they've received.

"It's designed to be a loose kind of organization without a lot of centrality," Hibbing said. "I'm not sure it's played out that way. The fact that there might be different elements of the Tea Party that might be attracted to different candidates within the Republican primary in Nebraska is not surprising. A lot of times, it has to do with whether they stress the more economic kinds of issues (while) other people in the Tea Party are pretty serious about some of the more hot-button issues. The different emphasis on the types of issues is probably the crux of the matter there."

Candidates Deb Fischer and Pat Flynn have also been involved in additional Tea Party movements. Now, the question of relevance in endorsements will ultimately be answered in two weeks, when all six of the candidates appear on the ballot in the Republican primary on May 15th.

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