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Saturday, Oct 20 2012 10:00 PM

DANA MILBANK: Tea party gives Democrats a boost in Senate

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    Dana Milbank

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There are those who say the tea party is fading in influence, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the movement is on the cusp of achieving what once seemed nearly impossible: keeping the Senate Democratic.

A year ago, famed political handicapper Charlie Cook gave Republicans a 60 percent to 70 percent likelihood of capturing control of the Senate; now, he tells me the likelihood of it remaining Democratic is 60 percent.

The switch in fortunes can be attributed to many causes -- a slate of lackluster Republican candidates high among them -- but one thing is beyond serious dispute: If not for a series of tea party upsets in Republican primaries, the Republicans would be taking over the Senate majority in January.

In the 2010 cycle, tea party candidates caused the Republicans to lose three Senate seats that were easily within their grasp: Sharron Angle allowed Democratic leader Harry Reid to keep his seat in Nevada, Christine O'Donnell handed Joe Biden's former seat right back to the Democrats in Delaware, and a tea party favorite in Colorado, Ken Buck, lost a seat that was his to lose.

Now, tea party picks are in jeopardy of losing two more races that heavily favored Republicans: Richard Mourdock, who beat longtime Sen. Richard Lugar in the Indiana Republican primary, is struggling against Democrat Joe Donnelly; and Todd Akin, who bested the Republican establishment's favorite in the Missouri's U.S. Senate primary, is expected to lose to the one-time underdog, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, because of Akin's infamous comments on "legitimate rape."

Democrats and affiliated independents now have 53 seats to the Republicans' 47. The way things look now, they seem likely to end up with 51 or 52 after the election; if President Obama is re-elected, they would keep control of the chamber with 50 seats because Vice President Biden would have the tiebreaker vote. This would mean that the seats the tea party cost the Republicans -- between three and five, depending on the outcomes in Indiana and Missouri -- will have kept the Democrats in charge.

For the tea party cause, the consequences should be fairly obvious. If Obama wins re-election, this will deny Republicans unified control of Congress (GOP control of the House is virtually certain) and diminish their leverage in negotiations with the White House. If Romney wins, it gives Democrats the ability to thwart his agenda and to launch probes of the administration.

But there's a case to be made that the outcome is bad for everybody because it could continue the paralysis for another two years. Divided government can be quite effective when one party controls the White House and the other controls Congress, as was the case in the mid-1990s when Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress balanced the budget. This outcome, however, would perpetuate a split between a Democratic Senate and a Republican House, which has produced mostly finger-pointing over the last two years.

There is a deep irony here: that the tea party faithful, who claimed they wanted to shake up Washington, have wound up perpetuating the old system. In fighting for ideological purity in primaries regardless of the consequences, they have set back their own cause of limited government and expanded freedom.

High among those putting Republican Senate control in jeopardy is Mourdock, who eviscerated Lugar, the longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, by running to his right in the primary. Now realizing they are in danger of losing a seat that Lugar kept Republican for 36 years, Indiana Republicans used a super PAC to send out a direct-mail piece quoting favorable remarks Lugar made about Mourdock. But Lugar's Senate office let it be known that it did not authorize the mailing and that Lugar would not be campaigning for Mourdock.

While Mourdock still has a shot at the Senate, Missouri's Akin appears to be squandering an easy win for Republicans because of his remarks about rape. Akin beat the preferred candidate of the GOP establishment, businessman John Brunner, in the primary, but his candidacy floundered after he voiced his bizarre thoughts about rape.

In a situation even worse than Mourdock's, the party establishment abandoned Akin. "I'm convinced now they don't want Akin to win," Akin adviser Rick Tyler complained last week to the Daily Caller, a conservative website.

Of course they want him to win. But they know that in Missouri, as in Indiana, Delaware, Colorado and Nevada, the tea party has done serious damage to Republicans' hopes of being the majority.

Email Dana Milbank of The Washington Post at danamilbank@washpost.com.

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