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Dressed in a colonial costume, William Temple speaks at a news conference hosted by the Tea Party to condemn the GOP, at the National Press Club on May 9, 2011, in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

GOP Breaks 
Tea Party Lines

Will the Republican Party gerrymander freshman insurgents into submission?

BY Edward Graham

Hoping to purge the party of its moderate members, elected Tea Party members remain a thorn in the side of the Republican establishment.

Being branded an anti-establishment movement helped Tea Party candidates gain support during the 2010 midterm election season. But its members’ refusal to embrace the GOP establishment may have caught up with them, as Republican leaders look to oust some of their freshman colleagues through the decennial redistricting process, currently underway following the 2010 U.S. census.

Tea Party candidates challenged incumbent and party-backed contenders alike during the primaries leading up to last year’s midterm elections, often times forcing their way onto the general election ballot in November. Those associated with the Tea Party movement touted their connection to conservative voters and put the Republican National Committee in a predicament: It could either back its preferred candidates or jump on the Tea Party bandwagon. Hoping to capitalize on the Tea Party’s publicity, the RNC, under the leadership of Chairman Michael Steele, largely turned a blind eye to the challengers.

“The RNC did an awful job of managing the Tea Party movement last cycle,” says Brian Jones, former RNC communications director and advisor to John McCain’s 2008 presidential run. “Chairman Steele sent signals that it was OK to go after RINOs [Republicans in Name Only]. That’s just bad politics.”

Unwilling to work with many GOP colleagues and hoping to purge the party of its moderate members, elected Tea Party members remain a thorn in the side of the Republican establishment. With Steele’s tenure now only a bad memory for many inside the party, establishment Republicans appear to be using their redistricting powers to marginalize the Tea Party.

Before Reince Priebus took over as RNC chairman in January, the Tea Party-aligned Republican Liberty Caucus of Wisconsin (the state where Priebus had previously served as chair of the GOP), predicted that Priebus “will change Republican National Committee rules to strengthen GOP party bosses to the detriment of primary voters and Tea Party activists. Priebus supports a top-down approach where party bosses decide which candidates should receive support, rather than a grassroots, bottom-up approach.” While Priebus and other GOP leaders haven’t made their redistricting goals explicit, recent events make Liberty Caucus look prescient.

The midterm election gave Republicans complete control over how 202 congressional districts will be redefined for the 2012 election. But in an ironic twist, because of their dramatic increase in representatives, Republicans are forced to cannibalize some of their own districts in order to strengthen others–and Tea Party freshmen appear to be on the chopping block. Ohio, home of House Speaker John Boehner, is set to lose two congressional districts due to population loss. While plans aren’t finalized, it is the state’s representatives aligned with the Tea Party movement–notably Reps. Jean Schmidt, Bill Johnson, Bob Gibbs and Jim Renacci, all freshmen–who appear most in danger of losing their districts.

In Louisiana, the mass exodus following Hurricane Katrina means the state will lose one congressional district. Republican lawmakers have already decided to divvy up the 3rd district to the surrounding districts, leaving Tea Party freshmen Rep. Jeffrey Landry (R-La.) possibly out of a job. Even Tea Party movement leaders aren’t safe: Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) is one of the more prominent members of the freshman class, yet Republicans are considering a plan to weaken his district in order to solidify those of incumbent Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.).

Republicans may owe the Tea Party thanks for their role in last fall’s historic “shellacking” of Democrats, but given the choice between movement representatives and mainstream candidates, the GOP seems to favor its own breed rather than freshmen who have demonstrated little allegiance to the GOP brand.

Edward Graham was a fellow with the Inside Politics program at Gettysburg College, where he researched the implications of the 2010 midterm election on redistricting.

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