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Carney: Uneasy alliance between old-line GOP and Tea Party

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Politics,Timothy P. Carney,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

Leaders in the Republicans' K Street wing, it seems, don't know whether to embrace the Tea Party wing or go to war against it.

The GOP establishment has made two peace offerings to the rebels within its ranks.

First, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, facing a potential primary challenge, chose a new campaign manager: Ron Paul's campaign director and longtime aide, Jesse Benton. Paul was Tea Party before the Tea Party -- chastising his own party for abandoning its stated principles, serving as a gadfly in primaries and rallying a base that otherwise would not have been engaged. His son Rand shifted the Tea Party into high gear in May 2010 when he defeated McConnell's hand-picked Senate nominee, Trey Grayson, in the Kentucky GOP primary.

By hiring Benton, McConnell shows he believes he can't simply fight the Tea Party.

Along the same lines, McConnell and the rest of the Senate GOP leadership reached out to a Tea Party freshman-elect who knocked off an establishment pick in the primary, naming Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of two vice chairmen of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Rob Portman, a member in good standing of the GOP establishment, will be NRSC vice chairman for finance -- he is the liaison to the party's K Street, Wall Street and big business base. Cruz's job title is "vice chair for grassroots outreach," making him the liaison to the Tea Party base. Operatives in the insurgent wing of the party think the party hopes to use Cruz to mollify Tea Partiers unhappy with the establishment's chosen candidates.

But Cruz's path to the Senate shows how dynamics have changed among the two bases of power in the GOP.

After Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, made it clear she wouldn't run again in 2012, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst became the instant favorite for the seat. "If Dewhurst gets in, I think he clears the field," Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report told MSNBC in early 2011.

The GOP establishment in Austin, Texas, backed Dewhurst. Gov. Rick Perry endorsed him. All the major industry lobbies in Texas started funding him.

But at the same time, Cruz started winning over the big names and deep pockets of the Tea Party wing of the GOP. Utah Sen. Mike Lee -- who in 2010 ousted moderate Republican and notorious porker Bob Bennett in a party convention -- was among the first to rally behind Cruz. Then Cruz won over the money hubs of the Tea Party wing: the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Sen. Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund.

What was different is what didn't happen next: No top Republican officials in Washington rallied behind Dewhurst. No sitting senators hosted fundraisers for Dewhurst until his runoff with Cruz, when Oklahoma's Jim Inhofe put his name on one. And that was it.

Sure, some eminent figures in the GOP K Street establishment rallied behind Dewhurst -- powerful lobbyists Charlie Black and Wayne Berman raised money for him -- but actual party officials and elected Republicans basically stayed away.

Lee, DeMint, Rand Paul and Tom Coburn all endorsed and raised money for Cruz.

So the Tea Party wing has organized hubs of fundraising and campaigning with the names of top elected Republicans attached, while the K Street wing lacks formal clearinghouses or the open imprimatur of sitting senators and party officials.

Operatives on Team DeMint say the Republican National Committee and congressional leadership still quietly funnel money toward their establishment candidates like Dewhurst and Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin. Berman and Black, for instance, wouldn't raise money for a primary candidate who didn't have the blessing of Mitch McConnell.

Even so, this is a huge change from recent years. In 2004, the entire Republican leadership openly opposed Coburn in his Senate primary against Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys. In 2010, the NRSC backed liberal Charlie Crist over conservative Marco Rubio, and McConnell went to the mat for Grayson over Rand Paul.

In 2012, by comparison, the party leadership felt it had to act clandestinely if at all.

This could all change again. Crossroads, Karl Rove's super-PAC, indicated last week it planned to get involved in GOP primaries as a counterweight to the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. And the post-Crist NRSC policy of staying out of open primaries? That's been abandoned, according to John Cornyn, outgoing NRSC chairman and incoming Senate whip.

The line is still clear between K Street wing and Tea Party wing of the GOP. In 2014, how much will they fight one another, and how much will they try to co-opt one another?

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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