A new Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week has some useful information on the Tea Party that may play a significant role in Colorado's GOP Senate primary.
Sean Sullivan at the Washington Post breaks down the relevant numbers. Yes, you've see this movie before, but it's worth noting that the Tea Party continues to be a problem for Republicans:
By nearly 2-1, Republicans say a candidate's tea party affiliation makes it more likely they will vote for them, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. But by about the same margin, the broader pool of Americans is less likely to vote for that candidate. [Pols emphasis]
In short, it's generally a good idea for GOP candidates to embrace the tea party in a primary. But in swing districts and states, it's typically a bad one to do it — or at least to do it too much — in the general election. That makes for a tricky proposition. And it's a dynamic that explains why the Republican Party in numerous races has nominated tea party candidates who played well in primaries but fell flat in the general election (See Mourdock, Richard and Cuccinelli, Ken.)…
…The poll shows that independents are about as hostile toward tea party candidates as the rest of the electorate, with 34 percent saying it would make them less likely to support them, compared with only 15 percent who said it would make them more likely to vote for those candidates. Democrats, unsurprisingly, show virtually no warmth toward tea party candidates.
This data is particularly relevant in the U.S. Senate primary between Rep. Cory Gardner and state Sen. Owen Hill. Prior to Gardner's entry into the GOP field last week, Hill had been racking up some pretty strong Tea Party endorsements. Of course, Gardner has been a darling of the Tea Party as well since his 2010 campaign for Congress in CD-4, and he has enthusiastically voted with Tea Party positions during his time in Congress.
The Tea Party Conundrum comes into play differently depending on the campaign's focus, so let's look at the scenarios:
1. Republican Primary
Will Hill or Gardner secure more votes among Tea Party voters in the June Primary? Hill absolutely must have Tea Party support to beat Gardner, so he'll be less concerned about how that support might impact him in the fall. Hill's message of a "backroom deal" to get Gardner in the Senate race should play will with anti-establishment Tea Party types — the sort of voters who would love to demonstrate their disgust with insider politics by propelling Hill to an upset victory.
Gardner, meanwhile, needs to keep some of his Tea Party support to make sure he checks Hill in a Primary, and his record as the 10th most partisan Republican in Congress will allow him to do that. However…
2. General Election
Gardner is facing the same problem that Ken Buck saw in his 2010 Senate campaign. If you can't win the Primary, then the General Election is irrelevant — so it makes sense to play all of your Tea Party chits in June and not try to over-strategize for November. But as Buck and countless other Tea Party-backed candidates found out, the label is serious baggage in a General Election. And as the Washington Post-ABC News poll shows, any hope that such a divide might be different in 2014 can be put to bed.
There's a great graphic on the Washington Post website that shows how the numbers play out. Voters in general, and specifically "Independent" voters, say that they are considerably less likely to vote for a Tea Party-backed candidate in a General Election. Those numbers are so high in part because even Republican voters say they are just 18% more likely to vote for a Tea Party-backed candidate; in other words, average GOP voters aren't thrilled with the Tea Party, either.
All of this leads to a fairly obvious conclusion: Gardner really needs Hill to drop out of the U.S. Senate race. Sure, Gardner would be favored to beat Hill in a GOP Primary, but at what cost? In one sense, Gardner could use Hill's Tea Party support as a means to distance himself from the Tea Party should he win the June Primary. But that approach only works if Gardner actually forsakes public support of the Tea Party before the Primary; otherwise, saying "I defeated the Tea Party candidate in a Primary" becomes a lie that is much-too-easily-debunked.
The Tea Party conundrum affects all Republican candidates, of course, but no race will be more high-profile than the U.S. Senate. And Gardner's Tea Party connections are just one more reason why we've openly wondered what National Republicans see that makes them think Gardner is the solution to their problems. Yes, Gardner should be able to raise much more money than any of the Republican candidates thus far, but his baggage may even be worse than what Buck carried around in 2010. How much money will it take to convince voters to believe what Cory is saying — and to forget about what he has done?