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Republican cull weak candidates ahead of elections

May 9, 2014

MEMPHIS, Tennessee (AP) — It’s too early to proclaim the end of the U.S. conservative tea party movement.

But the Republican Party and its allies are using campaign cash, positions of influence and other levers of power to defuse what they consider primary challenges by weak conservative candidates before the 2014 congressional elections and the 2016 presidential race. The party is cherry-picking other candidates, including some who rode the right-wing tea party wave to a House majority in 2010. Some of those lawmakers are getting boosts from the very establishment the class they vowed to upend.

It’s an expensive and sweeping effort by national and state Republicans to blur the dividing line between factions that many believe cost the party the Senate majority in 2012 and prolonged the presidential nomination fight that year. This year, Republicans are within six seats of controlling the Senate. If they win Senate control this November and keep their House majority, even deeper frustrations would await President Barack Obama in his final two years in office.

“We can’t expect to win if we are fighting each other all the time,” said Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.

Merging the factions is uncomfortable for all sides, and weighted heavily in favor of the well-financed and organized Republican Party, its state affiliates and allied groups like the Chamber of Commerce. In contrast, the other faction — the tea party — is a loosely affiliated group of conservative activists — some who now call themselves the “liberty movement” — who favor smaller government and a balanced budget.

Public opinion suggests that some voters have tired of the tea party’s cut-it-or-shut-it approach to governing after years of crises in which House conservatives’ refusal to compromise brought the U.S. to the brink of a default and helped drive a partial government shutdown. A Gallup survey out Thursday found that about four in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents classify themselves as supporters of the tea party, down from more than six in 10 — a high-water mark — in November 2010.

The Gallup survey follows an AP-GfK poll in March that found about one in five Americans supports the tea party, a modest improvement from public approval of the movement at the height of the government shutdown in October.

By changing rules at the presidential level and showering money and support in the primaries on candidates in North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan and more states, Republican leaders are trying to drum out tea party-approved candidates they consider flawed — like ones who were seen as costing the party winnable Senate seats in Delaware, Missouri and Nevada in recent years.

As the Republican Party calculates how to cull the best of the tea party’s candidates and energy, the activists are trying to figure out what they’ve won in the four-yearlong struggle for control of the party. Some say they have succeeded in pushing the party toward their deeply conservative ideals.

Establishment candidates now “run on our message; they run as populists,” said Daniel Horowitz of the conservative Madison Project, which has endorsed candidates in more than a dozen Republican primaries. “In one sense, it’s frustration on our part. On the other, it shows that we’re winning.”

Looking ahead to 2016′s presidential race, Republican officials are meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, this week to figure out how to prevent a nominating contest that leaves an establishment-favored candidate battling tea party-styled longshots. Republican National Committee members are rewriting rules to shorten the nomination period and limit the number of debates.

On Thursday, the RNC rules panel endorsed the creation of a 13-person committee that would limit how many presidential debates can take place and who can ask the questions. The full committee on Friday went along with that plan to ban candidates who participate in rogue debates from future RNC-backed sessions, by a 152-to-7 vote.

But even as the Republican establishment sought to assert its control, there was a stark reminder Friday that outside groups will have significant sway over Republican political fortunes through the 2016 presidential race.

Americans for Prosperity, an independent organization with deep ties to the conservative industrialist billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has elected to spend $125 million on the battle for control of the Senate this fall.

A senior official with direct knowledge of Americans for Prosperity’s plans confirmed the election blueprint, outlined in a memo distributed to Republican donors this spring. The official confirmed the memo’s authenticity, but wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss its contents.

The Koch brothers have already funneled millions to conservative causes. Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have roundly criticized the billionaires and claim Republican policies are being dictated by an agenda to grow the Kochs’ wealth.

In a nod to the Kochs’ heft, the full RNC passed a resolution condemning Reid for what it called “hyperbolic attacks ... on private citizens.”

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Kellman reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta also contributed to this report.

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