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The next Tea Party targets

By Aaron Blake

The 2010 primary season is over, but for a handful of Republican Senators, the worrying has only just begun as they contemplate the possibility of serious primary challenges from tea party-backed candidates in 2012.

Primary losses by Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in recent weeks sent a clear signal to the Republican establishment: no one is safe.

While noted moderate Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) is an obvious tea party target in the next election cycle, there are a handful of other GOP Senators who could well find themselves with a fight on the right too.

Here's a look at each of their situations:

* Olympia Snowe (R-Maine)

Nobody inflames the right wing of the GOP quite like Snowe, who voted for the President Obama's health care bill in the Senate Finance Committee (although she opposed it in the full floor vote) and is often the first -- and often only -- Republican that Democrats recruit to try to pass their legislative priorities.

A recent poll from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic automated polling firm based out of North Carolina, showed just 29 percent of Maine Republicans say they would definitely support Snowe while 63 percent would prefer a more conservative alternative.

Though Maine is not known as a conservative state, the Republican base elected a tea party candidate in its governor's primary this year, and that doesn't bode well for Snowe.

If that candidate for governor -- Waterville Mayor Paul LePage -- comes ups short this fall, he would be an obvious candidate to challenge Snowe in 2012.

A conservative activist, former Lisbon Falls Town Selectman Scott D'Amboise, has been running since earlier this year.

But he has yet to file a Federal Election Commission report, and he barely raised any money during a 2006 run at Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine).

Andrew Ian Dodge, the leader of Maine chapter of the Tea Party Patriots, is guaranteeing Snowe gets a viable GOP opponent in two years.

* Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), after missing a golden opportunity against Sen. Bob Bennett(R) this year, is already eyeing the state's senior senator.

Hatch, much like Bennett, isn't viewed as any kind of moderate in Washington, but when it comes to a very conservative state with a nominating process driven by a state party convention process dominated by the most conservative of voters, any apostasy can be fatal. Hatch voted for the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout and voiced support for the right of Muslims to build a mosque and Islamic cultural center several blocks from Ground Zero in New York City.

Chaffetz, meanwhile, is a veteran of this game. He defeated former Rep. Chris Cannon (R) 59 percent to 41 percent at the 2008 state convention before dispatching him for good in the ensuing primary.

"I think a candidate usually looks at name ID and bank account of a senator and gets scared off; that's not necessarily the case now," Chaffetz told The Fix. "This is something that will carry through to the presidential election ... there's no doubt about it."

* Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)

The first-term Senator from Tennessee doesn't necessarily irritate conservatives along the lines of a Castle or a Snowe, but he did defeat two candidates running to his ideological right in a 2006 open seat primary.

The prevailing wisdom after his primary win four years ago was that former Reps. Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary split up the conservative vote, thereby allowing Corker to win. There has been some speculation that a candidate like Bryant might make a second run at Corker, hoping for more of a one-on-one shot at the senator and better odds.

Bryant is currently a magistrate judge in Tennessee, so he's not talking politics right now. But he or someone else must be intrigued by the current environment after the way their 2006 primary panned out. (One intriguing name: Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a conservative Congresswoman from the Memphis area.)

Corker ranked as the 34th most conservative out of 40 GOP senators in the National Journal's 2009 vote rankings -- one spot ahead of Murkowski. He inflamed the tea party a bit when he was working with Democrats on financial regulatory reform, and he voted for TARP in 2008, along with Murkowski, Bennett and Castle.

* Richard Lugar (R-Ind.)

The longtime Hoosier senator was the most liberal Republican not named Snowe in the National Journal vote rankings last year. He voted for TARP and, this year, Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination.

Lugar might have caught a break, though, when Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) fell to scandal early this year and tea party candidate Marlin Stutzman was chosen by GOP leaders as their candidate to replace him.

Stutzman, a state senator, had backing from tea party activists and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) in the U.S. Senate primary against former Sen. Dan Coats this year, but Stutzman was hurt by former Rep. John Hostettler splitting the tea party vote.

With Stutzman now looking like a lock to join the House this year, tea party activists eager to take out Lugar will probably have to look elsewhere for their candidate.

Lugar, who will be 80 in 2012, could also opt against seeking re-election to a seventh term.

* Scott Brown (R-Mass.)

Brown, like Snowe, has a difficult balancing act. He came in as the darling of the Republican Party and tea party after his shocking win in the Massachusetts special election earlier this year but if he wants to win reelection in the bluest state in the nation in 2012, he needs to compromise.

And he has.

Shortly after taking office, Brown crossed over to vote with Democrats on their jobs bill. Then he voted with them on financial regulatory reform. That left some tea party activists feeling snookered. (It shouldn't. Brown represents Massachusetts, a state President Obama carried with 62 percent in 2008.)

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) recently remarked that a candidate like Brown might not win re-nomination in a state like Alaska.

Remember, though, that you can't beat someone with no one, and the Massachusetts Republican party is not exactly bursting with potential candidates at the moment.

All five of the Senators mentioned above should be very thankful they aren't up in this election cycle. And, it's entirely possible that after knocking off a handful of incumbents in this primary season, the tea party will recede into the political background come 2012.

Still, rather than depend on a shift in the political winds, this quintet of Senators need to begin to work now to foreclose the possibility of becoming the next Mike Castle or Lisa Murkowski. It's a volatile political world out there.

By Aaron Blake  | September 20, 2010; 2:19 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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