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Tea Party still has clout despite election setbacks

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tea Party candidates may have spoiled Republican chances of taking control of the U.S. Senate, but the small-government movement will continue to hold sway in Washington for at least the next few years on fiscal - if not social - issues, experts said on Wednesday.

If not for the poor performance of some Tea Party-backed Senate candidates in both the 2012 and 2010 elections, Republicans could have been in the majority in the chamber. Instead, much to Republicans' dismay, Democrats have actually become stronger.

The ground is strewn with the bodies of failed Tea Party candidates in states where Democrats otherwise would have been sent to their own political graves: Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana in 2012; Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware in 2010, to name a few.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, the head of the Tea Party Caucus - Michelle Bachmann - appears to have just barely dodged defeat on Tuesday, while colleagues including Allen West and Joe Walsh were not as fortunate.

"The Tea Party is over," crowed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

That conclusion could be premature, as Republicans are showing every sign of hanging tough in their drive to keep taxes low, including for the wealthy, and to limit government spending - central philosophies they share with the Tea Party movement.

The top U.S. Republican, House Speaker John Boehner, said as much on Tuesday night, when he proclaimed that Obama had no mandate to raise taxes on the rich, even though the president had scored a solid re-election victory and Democrats increased their membership in the Senate.

Boehner put Democrats on notice after Republicans, who won the House in 2010 thanks to big Tea Party victories, retained power in the chamber.

And so when it comes to budget and tax issues, Republican leaders in Congress may have to continue answering Tea Party demands.

"Boehner still needs to keep his back to the wall on these folks," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who follows Congress.

Ron Bonjean, a former top aide to House and Senate Republican leaders, added, "If you're Speaker, you are going to take the hardest line possible that reflects the Republican conference. And it's unlikely you budge from that position unless President Obama comes your way with concessions."

Hess also noted that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who faces re-election in 2014, must be on the watch for primary-season challenges from the Tea Party, along with Senator Lindsey Graham. The same goes for Senators Saxby Chambliss and Lamar Alexander, according to other political analysts.

And so, Hess said, Republicans like McConnell and Graham still have to court the Tea Party, much like Senator Orrin Hatch successfully did the past two years. Conversely, Senator Richard Lugar - soon to be former Senator Richard Lugar - found that ignoring Tea Party forces can be perilous.

A House Republican aide predicted that Boehner's warning against letting income taxes rise on the rich was not just an opening line in upcoming "fiscal cliff" negotiations with Democrats. "It's his bottom line," the aide added.

While Boehner easily won re-election on Tuesday night to his House seat, he still has to run in January for re-election as Speaker. And so he might want to limit the number of tough votes he forces fellow Republicans to cast on taxes and spending before that leadership election.

Next week, however, Republicans will elect other mid-level party leaders, which could demonstrate the reach of the Tea Party.

Tea Party activist Tom Price is vying against Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Boehner protege who at times has been more of a centrist than Price.

TEA PARTY OBITUARY?

For all the attention Tea Party activists got last year, when they nearly brought the federal government to a grinding halt during a struggle with Democrats over the budget deficit and federal debt, and for all the muscle-flexing they continue to do, Hess said the loosely knit group's years are numbered.

As the U.S. economy grows healthier, Hess said that this political movement - born out of panic and anger over the deepest recession since the Great Depression - will become increasingly more irrelevant.

He envisioned an Internet obituary for the Tea Party that would read something like this: "A group of people who had an impact on the Republican Party in an organized sense between 2010 and 2016."

But for the time being, the Tea Party, despite its foibles, has played and continues to play a constructive role for Republicans, Bonjean said.

"The Tea Party has pulled Washington as a whole to their (Republican) side of the field by demanding more fiscal responsibility. They forced the president to the table on budget negotiations," Bonjean said.

Social issues are another matter, though, with Republicans apparently gaining little advantage when the Tea Party wades into abortion, immigration or other hot-button matters.

Akin's Senate bid sunk after he talked about "legitimate rape" this summer, while Mourdock faded when he said that pregnancy after rape could be "something that God intended."

So if Democrats, as expected, begin pushing social issues next year, such as comprehensive immigration reform, analysts say that Republican leadership scrapes with the Tea Party could be on public view, especially as the party tries to figure out a way to begin appealing to a growing Hispanic population.

(Additional reporting by Nick Carey in Chicago. Editing by Fred Barbash and Philip Barbara)

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