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Opinions differ on Tea Party strength in Tuesday's tallies

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 5, 2010 - State Sen. Chuck Purgason's smaller-than-expected vote tally in Tuesday's Republican U.S. Senate primary, coupled with the defeat of state Rep. Allen Icet in the GOP contest for auditor, has prompted some post-primary talk about the true clout of Missouri's Tea Party movement.

"The Tea Party movement did not show a lot of strength,'' said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "The Republican 'establishment' was able to withstand the assault from the Tea Party wing."

The biggest example was St. Louis lawyer Tom Schweich's surprisingly strong victory in what had been billed as a neck-and-neck race with Icet. Although both had sought Tea Party support, Icet -- who is tight with the GOP's social conservatives -- was considered more successful in wooing Tea Party activists.

As for Purgason, the weekend before the election he had been circulating a poll he commissioned that gave him an edge over U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield. Blunt also had been backed by the state GOP's establishment, and was outright unpopular with many Tea Party groups around the state. But despite all the headlines over their love of Purgason, he ended up snagging only 13 percent of the vote.

The Tea Party movement clearly had some impact further down the ballot. In the 26th state Senate district, which takes in part of southwest St. Louis County and Franklin County, Republican Brian Nieves -- a regular at Tea Party gatherings -- handily won his party's nomination despite withering personal attacks over the final two weeks.

And in St. Charles County, another Tea Party favorite -- state Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon -- gave quite a scare to incumbent state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville. Rupp held on to his 2nd District seat, but with an edge of only 2,500 votes out 27,500 cast on the GOP side. Not a strong showing, considering that Rupp had raised and spent four times what Davis did.

Across the state in southwest Missouri, Tea Party favorite Billy Long knocked off several GOP establishment favorites to take the party's nomination for the 7th District congressional seat being vacated by Blunt. (Long, by the way, now takes on Democrat Scott Eckersley, the former deputy counsei to then-Gov. Matt Blunt who was ousted in an office dispute over the destruction of office e-mails.)

But St. Louis Tea Party co-founder Gina Loudon dismisses any talk of weak Tea in Tuesday's tallies.

The real test of Tea strength, she said, was in the huge victory margin for Proposition C, which garnered over 70 percent of Tuesday's vote. Prop C seeks to exempt Missouri from some of the mandates in the new federal health care law, particularly the 2014 requirement that people buy insurance.

Even taking into account the fact that close to two-thirds of Tuesday's ballots were cast by Republicans, the larger Proposition C tally means that "there was a huge liberal contingency out there that voted for it,'' Loudon said.

Since local Tea Party groups didn't endorse candidates, Loudon said it's not surprising that the Tea Party's strength was diluted as activists split among the candidates.

But where unity really counted -- the Prop C vote -- Tea Party activists were solidly together, she said.

"We're all fighting for one thing,'' said Loudon. "To reclaim our Republic."

And for that, she added, there's plenty of strong Tea available.