Dems downplay Tea Party impact, as activists counter they're still a potent force

Backers of the Tea Party movement have a message for Democrats who say the movement is over: Reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.

The Tea Party label has not dominated this year’s electoral narrative the way it did in 2010, but with fiscal responsibility and government reform front and center in 2012, advocates say they are still setting – and expanding – the agenda.

“I’ve watched as the Tea Party has broadened out,” Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, an outspoken supporter, said. “Two and a half years ago, they consistently said, ‘We’re not going to address social issues; we’re only going to address fiscal and constitutional issues.’ Now… it’s the full spectrum.”

King and other Tea Party lawmakers are hitting back at a claim by House Democrats that the sun has set on the small-government movement that swept the country during the last elections.

“The 2012 elections have been the undoing of the 2010 Tea Party tsunami that crashed upon Washington,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said in a memo released Monday. “The Tea Party is over.”

Citing anemic approval ratings for the Republican-led House, the DCCC argues that several Tea Party-backed lawmakers have since moderated their rhetoric in order to win re-election. The memo suggests that efforts by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a onetime presidential hopeful and founder of the congressional Tea Party Caucus, to portray herself as a bipartisan, independent voice contradict her conservative reputation. It also accuses Tea Party favorite Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., a freshman locked in a tight re-election battle, of watering down his polarizing image by promising to protect Medicare and Social Security.

“In nearly every competitive race, these Tea Party favorites have given up on the Tea Party,” the DCCC declares.

The mention drew a sharp response from the West campaign.

“Another day and another ridiculous memo from the losers at the DCCC,” West spokesman Tim Edson said. “It is House Democrats that have to disguise their disastrous agenda. Congressman West is talking about the issues in the same straightforward terms he always has.”

Edson added that the campaign arm of House Democrats has no credibility given that political handicappers agree the Democrats are unlikely to regain control of the House.

In the Democratic-controlled Senate, the Tea Party is looking to expand its influence this year. Conservatives Ted Cruz in Texas and Richard Mourdock in Indiana edged out moderate Republicans in their primaries, while Rep. Jeff Flake, a longtime deficit hawk, is vying for the Senate seat in Arizona. If the trio is victorious, they “will continue to carry the Tea Party message and influence well into the next few decades of American politics,” said Brendan Steinhauser of FreedomWorks, an organization that works closely with Tea Party groups.

While recent polls show Cruz and Flake favored to win their races, Mourdock’s controversial comment that pregnancy resulting from rape would be “something that God intended” have the state treasurer and onetime front-runner now trailing Democratic opponent Rep. Joe Donnelly.

Indeed, critics of the Tea Party have labeled the Indiana Senate contest as a redux of 2010, when a crop of conservative candidates garnered primary wins but were unable to win the general election in several key states. The Donnelly campaign is doing its best to exploit Mourdock’s comments.

“He has questioned the constitutionality of Social Security and Medicare, he said pregnancies resulting from rape are something God intended, and claimed he didn’t take a pledge to support every job in Indiana,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Shappell said. “Hoosiers deserve a common sense, middle-of-the-road leader like Joe Donnelly, not an extremist like Richard Mourdock.”