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Latest Tea Party Vs. GOP Establishment Battle Comes Tuesday In Texas

One question heard over and over again this year: Is the Tea Party still relevant?

The question comes two years after it completely dominated the political conversation in 2010, when it was primarily responsible for defeating the Republican establishment in key Senate races such as in Florida (Marco Rubio over Charlie Crist), Kentucky (Rand Paul over Trey Grayson) and Utah (Mike Lee over Robert Bennett). In Pennsylvania, the Tea Party helped Pat Toomey end the GOP career (and Senate career) of Arlen Specter. In Wisconsin, it backed an unknown businessman, Ron Johnson, in his improbable victory over Russ Feingold. And it contributed scores of candidates, money and manpower in the Republicans' whopping net gain of 63 seats in the House.

There were some defeats, to be sure. They were blamed for throwing away all-but-certain Senate wins in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware, backing candidates (Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and Christine O'Donnell respectively) who won in the primary but fell far short of attracting enough Democratic and independent crossovers to win in November.

But when all was said and done, the Tea Party was instrumental in the big Republican victories of 2010.

This year, the scorecard is less clear-cut. They didn't come up with a winning Republican alternative to Mitt Romney, despite an endless tryout of wannabes. They did knock off six-term GOP Senate incumbent Dick Lugar in Indiana, but they failed to do the same to Orrin Hatch in Utah. (They will argue, with some justification, that their challenge to Hatch made him a much more reliable conservative.) And while they are pleased with the primary victory of state Sen. Deb Fischer in Nebraska, there were Tea Party activists who were behind the two losing GOP candidates, Jon Bruning and Don Stenberg.

One race that has clearly excited Tea Party activists is tomorrow's (Tuesday July 31) GOP primary runoff in Texas for the Senate seat of retiring Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. Their candidate is Ted Cruz, the state's former solicitor general, who is being vastly outspent by his "establishment" opponent, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who led Cruz by ten percentage points in the initial primary back in May.

Dewhurst is hardly a RINO; he is a longtime conservative who boasts the strong backing of Gov. Rick Perry and many leaders in the Lone Star State's GOP ranks. But the TP'ers insist Dewhurst, as president of the state Senate, is too eager to compromise with Democrats. He is also 66 years old, a quarter-century older than Cruz, and has spent nearly a decade in his current position — hardly the 36 years both Lugar and Hatch have been in the Senate, but hardly the new face that Cruz represents.

Cruz, who has been compared favorably to Rubio — both have parents who were born in Cuba — is a dynamic debater who excites crowds wherever he goes. If Dewhurst has been getting the backing of a who's-who in Texas GOP circles, Cruz has been endorsed by a slew of national conservative figures, including Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, Sean Hannity and the Club for Growth. To paraphrase George Wallace, there may not be a dime's worth of difference between the two of them. But it's become the latest test of the Tea Party and its ability to take down members of the Republican establishment.

For the record, Democrats are also holding a runoff on the 31st, between ex-state Rep. Paul Sadler and retired educator Grady Yarbrough. But no Democrat has won a statewide race in Texas since 1994, and their last Senate winner came in 1988, when Lloyd Bentsen won his fourth and final term.

Still to come: the Aug. 7 Senate GOP primary in Missouri, where the Tea Party Express has endorsed former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, and the Republican primary a week later in Wisconsin, where if nothing else the Tea Party wants to defeat frontrunner Tommy Thompson, a former governor.

Senate Ratings Update. Here is an update from my last "Battle for the Senate" ratings from back in January. Of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs, 23 are currently held by Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents. Only ten are held by Republicans. With Democrats currently holding a 53-47 advantage, the GOP would need four seats to take control — or three, if they win the White House (and the VP would break a 50-50 tie).

The big change since my January ratings is in Maine. Back then, with the expectation that Olympia Snowe (R) would run again, I rated it "Republican Favored." With her retirement and the likelihood that former Gov. Angus King, an independent, will win, I'm moving it to "Expected GOP Loss." The further expectation is that King, should he be elected, will caucus with the Democrats.

Also, I've moved North Dakota, where Kent Conrad (D) is retiring, from "Expected Dem Loss" to "Tossup." And I've moved Florida, where Bill Nelson (D) is seeking re-election, from "Tossup" to "Democrat Favored."

Here are my ratings:

SAFE DEMOCRATIC (8): California (Dianne Feinstein), Delaware (Tom Carper), Maryland (Ben Cardin), Minnesota (Amy Klobuchar), New York (Kirsten Gillibrand), Rhode Island (Sheldon Whitehouse), Vermont (Bernie Sanders (I)), West Virginia (Joe Manchin).

DEMOCRAT FAVORED (7): Connecticut (open seat — Joe Lieberman (I) retiring), Florida (Bill Nelson), Michigan (Debbie Stabenow), New Jersey (Bob Menendez), Ohio (Sherrod Brown), Pennsylvania (Bob Casey), Washington (Maria Cantwell).

TOSSUP DEM SEATS (7): Hawaii (open seat — Daniel Akaka retiring), Missouri (Claire McCaskill), Montana (Jon Tester), New Mexico (open seat — Jeff Bingaman retiring), North Dakota (open seat — Kent Conrad retiring), Virginia (open seat — Jim Webb retiring), Wisconsin (open seat — Herb Kohl retiring).

EXPECTED DEM LOSSES/GOP PICKUPS (1): Nebraska (open seat — Ben Nelson retiring).

EXPECTED GOP LOSSES/DEM PICKUPS (1): Maine (open seat — Olympia Snowe retiring).*

TOSSUP GOP SEATS (1): Massachusetts (Scott Brown).

REPUBLICAN FAVORED (3): Arizona (open seat — Jon Kyl retiring), Indiana (open seat — Dick Lugar defeated in primary), Nevada (Dean Heller) .

SAFE REPUBLICAN (5): Mississippi (Roger Wicker), Tennessee (Bob Corker), Texas (open seat — Kay Bailey Hutchison retiring), Utah (Orrin Hatch), Wyoming (John Barrasso).

*Winner likely to be an independent who is expected to caucus with Democrats.

Debate sked. While we had this information back in October, it's now official. Last week the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the dates and locations of the three presidential (and one vice-presidential) debates to be held this fall:

1st presidential (domestic policy) — Oct. 3 at the University of Denver

vice-presidential — Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

2nd presidential (town-meeting format) — Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

3rd presidential (foreign policy) — Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Each debate will be 90 minutes long and have one moderator.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. There's room this week for one e-mail comment.

Q: You are being too nice in your review of "Political Animals" [see July 23 Political Junkie column]. I love Sigourney Weaver and eagerly awaited this new show, setting my DVR to record the series. But now, after seeing only two episodes, I've deleted the series. The odious buffoonish character of Bud is so off-putting and distracting, he renders the show unwatchable for me. The actor is simply awful and amateurish. Ugh. I'm done. — Jann Dorothy, Sacramento, Calif.

A: I'm with you. As I wrote last week, I wanted to like it because (1) I too am a Sigourney Weaver fan, and (2) the topic — a defeated female presidential candidate-turned-secretary of state — looked like a promising theme for a TV series. But you're right. "Bud Hammond," the former president and caricature of Bill Clinton is done so clumsily, with lines written so painfully that, for me, it's nearly impossible to watch. Ciaran Hinds, the actor from Northern Ireland, may have some talent, but portraying Bud/Bill from North Carolina ain't one of them. No third episode for me.

Not that anyone asked me, but after five episodes of "The Newsroom," the HBO series starring Jeff Daniels about a cable news program and its suddenly opinionated anchor, I'm still trying to make up my mind. When the story line is about relationships between people inside and outside the network, or about the pressure of covering breaking news, it's fabulous. But I gotta tell you, it's getting a bit much being lectured by Aaron Sorkin time and time again about the Tea Party, Michele Bachmann, the Koch Brothers, etc. etc. etc. Yes, I get it, they're the bad guys. Fine. And I know exactly what Sorkin is trying to do by having the Daniels character be a registered Republican. (Hey, it's not liberal Aaron Sorkin bashing the right, it's a Republican!) Asking a Sorkin program not to be preachy may be asking for too much. But when it focuses on human drama, it's top notch.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week's segment looked at the upcoming GOP Senate runoff in Texas with special guest Bruce Buchanan, a professor and political analyst from the University of Texas at Austin. Click here to listen.

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner in crime, Ron Elving, and me.

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN T-shirt!

Most recent winner: Carol Lane of San Francisco, Calif.

ON THE CALENDAR:

July 31 — Georgia primary. Texas runoff primary.

Aug. 2 -- Tennessee primary.

Aug. 7 -- Primaries in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington.

Aug. 11 -- Hawaii primary.

Aug. 14 -- Primaries in Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Aug. 21 -- Wyoming primary.

Aug. 27-30 — Republican National Convention, Tampa, Fla.

Aug. 28 — Primaries in Alaska, Arizona and Vermont.

Sept. 3-6 — Democratic National Convention, Charlotte, N.C.

Sept. 6 — Massachusetts primary.

Sept. 11 — Primaries in Delaware, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

This day in campaign history: The Senate, ending a partisan deadlock that had lasted months, votes to declare New Hampshire's Senate seat vacant and call for a new election. For months, Louis Wyman, the Republican who was declared the winner by GOP-led New Hampshire election officials of the November 1974 Senate race over Democrat John Durkin by two votes — a move not recognized by the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate — had been calling for a re-vote; Durkin had been arguing for the Senate to declare a winner. But once Durkin changed his mind and agreed to a new election, the Senate voted 71-21 to accommodate him: the seat will become officially vacant, and the new election will be held Sept. 16 (July 30, 1975).

Unlike the original election, the do-over was not even close. Wyman had hoped to unite disparate factions of the state GOP, and both President Ford and his likely 1976 challenger, Ronald Reagan, campaigned on the Republican's behalf. But organized labor helped provide a huge turnout for Durkin, who beat Wyman by 27,000 votes (54-43 percent).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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