WASHINGTON, Aug. 2 (UPI) -- The Tea Party movement, vital to the 2010 Republican takeover of the U.S. House, will be instrumental in the GOP drive for control of the Senate, observers say.
Political observers point to the easy Republican primary win in Texas of Tea Party-backed Ted Cruz, in his bid to keep the reliably Republican seat in the party after Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's retirement, The New York Times reported Thursday.
Among 17 contested Senate races, at least six Republican candidates -- or those running ahead in their primaries -- are backed by the Tea Party movement. From Indiana, where Richard E. Mourdock upended veteran Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar, to Wisconsin, where two Tea Party candidates are slowly catching the Republican front-runner, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, to Nebraska, where Deb Fischer surprisingly beat out the establishment Republican candidate, Tea Party-backed contenders are surging.
The GOP Senate primary in Wisconsin was thrown a curve by the late entry of Erick Hovde, a banker, investor and hedge-fund manager who hasn't lived in the Badger State for more than 24 years until he returned home last year.
The Washington Post said Wednesday Hovde's entry created a possible opening for former Rep. Mark Neumann, who has benefited from the backing of conservative leaders and from $700,000 in attack ads against Thompson and Hovde by the conservative group Club for Growth.
"I find it credible and plausible" that the race is now a dead heat after polling earlier in July showed Thompson with a double-digit lead, Charles Franklin, a political scientist at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee who runs a polling operation, told the Post.
Even if Democrats maintain control of the Senate, Republican newcomers likely would gravitate to conservatives such as Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky, growing the number of members who are to the right of their party's central platform, the Times said.
The results, observers said, could lead to headaches for Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, similar to those experienced by House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio. If the GOP takes control of the Senate in November, McConnell could find himself having to balance demands of conservatives such as Cruz against centrists such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.
"This all proves what we've said all along -- that the Tea Party movement is here to stay," Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, told the Times.
Democrats involved in campaigns say a Tea Party affiliation could be a disadvantage when trying to woo the coveted independent vote.
"I think it's more of their problem than ours," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
"The Tea Party positions and Tea Party policies and Tea Party agenda is going to be a huge vulnerability," Matt Canter, a spokesman for the campaign committee, said.