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Tea party ready for fight with GOP establishment

Saturday - 3/1/2014, 8:38am  ET

FILE - In this Oct. 30, 2013, file photo, Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., holds up a letter he wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking that she consider waiving "Obamacare" for the 4th Congressional District of Colorado, as she testified on Capitol Hill in Washington. Republican primaries this election year will be a crucial test for the Tea Party movement as the GOP establishment has aggressively challenged tea party-backed candidates in Kentucky, Kansas, Idaho, Mississippi, Michigan and elsewhere. Tea party-affiliated Ken Buck, who lost a close Senate race in 2010, stepped aside to run for the House while more mainstream Gardner launched a Senate bid in a political deal. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

DONNA CASSATA
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Tea partyers insist they're not to blame for Republican election losses in congressional and presidential elections, faulting the GOP establishment for showing little fight.

This election year, the establishment is fighting -- against the tea party insurgents challenging incumbents who the Republican Party is convinced stand a far better chance in November.

The internal GOP showdown will be decided in primaries starting Tuesday in Texas and stretching through the year in Kentucky, Mississippi, Kansas, Michigan and elsewhere. Burned by losses in winnable Senate races in 2010 and 2012, establishment Republicans are aggressively challenging this year's class of tea party-backed candidates.

Tea partyers, dismissing reports of their demise, say they're ready to use their unbending political force against both President Barack Obama and the Republican establishment.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a superstar to the movement and a potential 2016 presidential candidate, says he's hopeful and optimistic that "we're going to turn this country around."

Hundreds gathered Thursday as the Tea Party Patriots, one of the major grassroots groups, marked the movement's fifth anniversary at a Washington celebration that toasted everything anti-Washington.

They stood and applauded wildly for Cruz, who precipitated the 16-day partial government shutdown last fall with his opposition to Obama's health care law, and warmly received two other tea party senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah.

Tea partyers, who helped Republicans capture control of the House in 2010, made clear they don't like what the GOP establishment has done to their conservative agenda of limited government, free-market policies and what they consider fidelity to the Constitution. They signaled they will work hard to elect their uncompromising candidates no matter what the establishment does.

In Kansas, the Tea Party Express endorsed Milton Wolf, who is opposing three-term Sen. Pat Roberts in the Republican primary.

Cruz, who has helped raise money for groups targeting incumbent Republicans, has refused to endorse his state's senior senator, John Cornyn, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, in Tuesday's primary. Cornyn faces Rep. Steve Stockman.

"Liberals fight every step," said Steve Gibson of Columbus, Ohio. Establishment Republicans, he said, say, "we can't win, we might as well not fight."

Gibson said he had offered to help Matt Bevin, the Republican businessman challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. McConnell, according to Gibson, is conservative 70 percent of the time, but then "throwing in the towel every time."

Gibson was particularly upset with McConnell's recent votes on allowing the nation to borrow more money.

Keli Carender, national grassroots coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, said the strength of the group was reflected in the $1.2 million and counting that it raised in 10 days.

To the "establishment and permanent political class," Carender said, "we don't need their millions; we've got our own."

Republicans blame the tea party for losses in winnable races in 2010 and 2012 in Colorado, Nevada, Delaware and Indiana that many believe cost the GOP a Senate majority.

As evidence of the party's tough tactics, a political deal was engineered in Colorado. Tea party-affiliated Ken Buck, who lost a close Senate race in 2010, stepped aside to run for the House while more mainstream Rep. Cory Gardner launched a Senate bid.

As Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said this week: "We're not anti-conservative. We're just anti-people-who-can't-win."

Tea partyers point to mainstream Republicans who lost Senate seats in Wisconsin, Virginia, North Dakota and Montana in 2012, as well as to two defeated presidential candidates -- John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

Addressing the tea party event, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., was interrupted by the crowd, which stood and cheered when he said, "It's high time we retire (House Speaker) John Boehner." When the applause died down, Huelskamp completed his sentence that it was "high time to retire John Boehner's biggest excuse that we only control one-third of the government."

Viveca Stoneberry of Spotsylvania, Va., said she was disillusioned with the Republican leadership because Boehner and others "pretend to be on the side of conservatives." Irene Conklin of Gainesville, Va., said Boehner needs to "take a solid stand."

Boehner said Thursday that he has "great respect for the tea party and the energy they brought to the electoral process. My gripe is with some Washington organizations who feel like they've got to go raise money by beating on me and others."

If Boehner and McConnell were drawing the movement's ire, Sen. Ted Cruz was collecting praise.

He drew a rousing response when he told the crowd he was "absolutely convinced we are going to repeal every single word" of the health care law.

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