By John Fritze
LOUISVILLE — They defined the election. Now, they hope to redefine the Senate.
Relying on an anti-Washington message of limited government and less spending, a growing number of tea party candidates are pulling even with their Democratic rivals or are frontrunners in some of the nation's most closely watched Senate races of this year's midterm election.
With less than two weeks to go before voters decide which party will control Congress and the fate of President Obama's agenda, conservative Republicans in Kentucky, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Wisconsin and West Virginia are poised to be a part of the largest class of incoming GOP senators since the 1994 "Republican Revolution." That year, voters elected 11 new Senate Republicans.
Even if Republicans don't win the 10 seats they need to recapture the Senate majority, the upstart tea party candidates say their presence will be felt.
"The base has revolted and sent a clear message to the Republican Party," Ken Buck, who won Colorado's GOP Senate nomination with tea party help, told USA TODAY. "The freshman class will challenge the status quo in the Republican conference."
Most of the candidates, including Kentucky's GOP Senate nominee Rand Paul, talk about repealing or scaling back the new health care law. Others, such as Alaska's Republican nominee Joe Miller, oppose spending on pet projects directed by lawmakers, or earmarks. All vow to tackle the nation's growing budget deficit, pegged at $1.3 trillion this year.
Democrats have tried to cast them as extreme — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid calls his GOP opponent, Sharron Angle, "dangerous" — but South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a conservative who has endorsed many of the candidates, says that approach won't sway voters.
"What people call radical are common sense ideas of let's don't bankrupt our country," said DeMint, who prefers the term "new Republicans," to the "tea party" label. "This is a matter of survival of our country."
The growing influence of the anti-tax tea party, which began as an uncoordinated effort, appears to reflect a shift taking place across the country. More than half of likely voters see themselves as "conservative," compared with 42% in 2006, the last midterm election, according to a Gallup Poll in early October.
Some of the candidates have stirred controversy. Miller, for instance, refuses to answer questions about his background after reporters sought a personnel file from his time as a local government employee. Buck, in a televised debate, compared homosexuality to alcoholism.
But ask Louisville resident Sherry Gerst, 63, why she supports Paul and she offers a sentiment shared by many who are backing tea party candidates: "I'm just absolutely sick of the Democrats."
Political newcomer aims to bed rest new health care law
Rand Paul, a 47-year-old eye surgeon from Bowling Green, Ky., became an early hero of the tea party movement when he beat a better-known candidate in the state's Republican primary, becoming the frontrunner in the Bluegrass State's Senate race.
"I'm a physician, not a career politician," Paul, who is running to replace retiring GOP Sen. Jim Bunning, said during a debate. "My greatest attribute is that I've never held office."
Paul, the son of GOP Texas Rep. Ron Paul, helped set the tone for other tea party candidates by opposing the nation's new health care law. In one ad, Paul — wearing his white doctor's coat — features a patient who says she trusts him "as my doctor" just as she trusts him to "stop the spending."
Mary Jo Leake, a nurse and co-chair of the Bowling Green/Southern Kentucky Tea Party, said she knows the law isn't likely to be repealed while President Obama is in office. But she believes Paul is on the right track as he looks for ways to not spend any money to implement it. "As a physician, he knows how it's going to affect his practice," she said.
Democrat Jack Conway, the state's attorney general, has tried to use Paul's own words against him. Conway blasts Paul for suggesting Medicare patients pay a $2,000 deductible to keep the seniors health insurance program solvent.
Paul says the suggestion has been taken out of context. Medicare, due for $575 billion in cuts under the health law, is projected to remain solvent through 2029, its trustees say.
"What I see out of Rand Paul is his desire to hold no one accountable, not even himself," Conway, 41, said. "Some of these tea party candidates are looking in the rear view mirror."
Paul is up 3.3 points in an average of polls compiled by the independent website RealClearPolitics.
Conway raised $1.7 million in the third quarter; Paul took in $2.7 million. He has recently attacked Paul's ties during college to a group that mocked Christianity. Paul has asked for an apology and refused to shake Conway's hand after a debate.
Making sense of federal dollars
Few races have exposed the strife the tea party is causing the GOP more than the Senate race in Alaska, where conservative Joe Miller faces GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski — again.
Miller, a Yale-educated lawyer backed by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, upset Murkowski in the state's Republican primary. Now, the incumbent's waging a write-in campaign despite objections from party leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. A CNN/Time poll last month showed Miller 2 points ahead, but it is difficult to accurately survey the race because Murkowski's name won't appear on the ballot. The Democratic candidate, Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, finished 14 points behind Murkowski in the CNN/Time poll.
[Read more about the tea party at Yahoo! News' special feature: Tea Party America]
In a state that receives more federal money per capita than any other — $5,319 a person, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — the race is turning in part on government spending. Miller says he will not support specific earmarks unless they are more appropriately vetted. "The catalyst for this movement is the crisis point that the nation's in," Miller, 43, said in an interview, referring to the nation's long-term budget deficits. "People recognize that and that's why they're voting outsiders in."
Murkowski, 53, who has served in the Senate since 2002, says the money is critical for the rural state and that eliminating it would have only a negligible impact on the budget.
"These appropriations aren't wasteful spending," said Murkowski, the daughter of former Alaska governor and senator Frank Murkowski. "I am the only candidate in this race who ... can bring such aid that is still vital for this developing state."
Biting words over job creation
When former state legislator Sharron Angle beat a crowded field of better-known and better-funded candidates to win Nevada's GOP Senate nomination in June, the outcome was supposed to be good news for the embattled Democratic leader of the Senate, Harry Reid.
He swiftly began tapping his large campaign war chest to run ads characterizing Angle, a state lawmaker, as out of the mainstream. In the ads, the Reid campaign called Angle "too extreme," "crazy," and "dangerous."
But while the ad war succeeded in making Angle less popular, it hasn't put Reid, who is seeking a fifth term, in the lead. The latest poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, conducted in late September, showed Angle and Reid both receiving 43% of the vote.
"Obviously, Angle's got a lot of fight to her," said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "She kind of wears a lot of this as a badge of honor."
In what has become one of the most bitter races in the country — he has accused her of wanting to eliminate Social Security while she says he supports government funding of Viagra for child molesters — Reid and Angle are most often at odds on the economy. Nevada has the nation's highest unemployment: 14.3% compared with the national 9.6% average.
Reid, 70, centers his attacks on a statement made by Angle earlier in the campaign, that job creation is not part of a senator's job. Angle, 61, blasts Reid for supporting Obama's $814 billion economic stimulus, which she says didn't work.
"My job is to create jobs," Reid said during a recent debate, "what's she talking about is extreme." Angle responded: "It's not your job to create jobs, it's your job to create policies that create the confidence for the private sector to create those jobs."
Reid outraised Angle for most of the year, bringing in $19 million through the summer. But last week, Angle announced she pulled in $14 million from July through September of this year — a figure a campaign spokesman chalked up to "hatred of Harry Reid."
Reid raised $2 million during the same period. Both have about $4 million left in the bank and can count on spending from special interest groups and unions to help get out the vote.
Pushing a 'fresh perspective'
In Peter Boddie's opinion, the tea party has been unfairly labeled as fringe movement, full of uninformed and angry voters. But on Election Day it won't matter, the 56-year-old hydrologist predicts, because the majority of Colorado voters know better.
"We've had a great influence. I feel proud of what we've all done," said Boddie, 56, who describes himself as a tea party supporter. "Even some of the Democrats are talking more like conservatives. We have shifted the whole thing."
That may be especially true in Colorado, where a conservative county prosecutor named Ken Buck beat former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in the GOP primary. Buck, who enjoys tea party support, is now ahead in general election polls against incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet.
The two have staked out opposing positions on immigration, Social Security and the economy. Buck has attacked Bennet in television ads for supporting the $814 billion economic stimulus and the health care law.
"We've got to come to grips with the idea that the role of the federal government is not the solution to every problem," Buck said. "I think it'll be a positive thing for the Republican caucus to look at issues with some fresh perspective."
Both candidates have accused the other of proposing tax increases. Bennet launched a series of ads reminding voters of Buck's support for a national sales tax, an idea he later edged away from. Buck notes Bennet first proposed extending Bush-era income tax cuts only for people making less than $250,000 a year. He now support extending the cuts for one year at all income levels.
Bennet has raised $7.7 million to Buck's $1.3 million haul. Polls show the race for voters is far tighter: A Denver Post/SurveyUSA poll in September found Buck leading Bennet 48% to 43%.
Bennet, 45, was appointed to the seat in early 2009 by Gov. Bill Ritter after Obama named then-Sen. Ken Salazar as his Secretary of Interior. Having never been elected, Bennet has tried to portray himself as an outsider and has worked to paint his opponent as too extreme for the swing state.
"The fringes of our political parties, both parties, argue a lot," Bennet says in an ad. "But that won't fix our economy."
Boddie, the tea party supporter, is backing Buck. But he leveled a warning against any tea party candidates who lose their way if elected. "If anyone of these candidates doesn't perform," he said, "we'll be back at it to get rid of them."
This article was originally published on USATODAY.com.