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posted: 5/6/2010 12:01 AM

Tea party comes up short in early primaries

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WASHINGTON -- Mark the first round down, shakily, for Republican incumbents and party establishment favorites.

With one race in Ohio yet to be settled, tea party-backed challengers and other outsiders were shut out in competitive primaries for seats in the House of Representatives and Senate across three states on Tuesday. It was the busiest night so far in an election season of optimism for Republicans.

Six months before the November elections, and with the country trying to shake off the effects of a deep recession, polls show a disaffected electorate, angry at incumbents and highly skeptical of government's ability to solve their problems. As a result, even Democrats concede Republicans are in line to make gains this fall, when 36 seats in the Senate and all 435 in the House are on the ballot.

While some of Tuesday night's Republican primary winners struggled to prevail -- former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats' comeback bid advanced with 40 percent of the vote in a five-way race -- the results renewed a debate about the clout of the insurgents in the remaining primaries and on elections this fall.

Coats is one of several prominent Republican candidates nationwide denounced by tea party activists as Washington insiders. The Indiana primary was seen as an indication about whether the widely publicized anti-tax movement could have an impact at the ballot box.

Primaries aside, Republicans cheered Wednesday when longtime Rep. David Obey, a leading liberal and chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, announced he would retire. Republican officials said the departure opens the way for them to win a seat he has held since 1969, and claimed he had been pushed to the exits by the prospect of possible defeat this fall.

Obey was characteristically blunt in reply: "I've won 25 elections. Does anybody think I don't know how to win another one?"

"The big question is whether the tea party is a tempest in a teapot. Do they have the organizational capabilities to compete with the Republicans?" said John Feehery, a Republican strategist.

"They're not organized and it's unclear to me whether they are going to be a force that is going to challenge the more establishment Republicans in primaries," he added.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced the arrival of the fall campaign with a video that lumped Coats with former Bush administration official Rob Portman, who won the Republican Senate primary in Ohio.

"President Obama and Democrats in Congress are fighting for comprehensive financial reform. Meanwhile, what did the Republicans do? They nominated a Wall Street lobbyist and one of the biggest Wall Street cheerleaders they could find," the video says.

Republicans recruited Coats, a former lobbyist and ambassador to Germany, to run months ago, when they were looking for a challenger to Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh. Bayh later announced his retirement.

Coats' nearest primary rival, Marlin Stutzman, was a tea party favorite who also gained support from a political organization run by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.

Coats, 66, retired from the Senate in 1998. He has worked as a lobbyist and was U.S. ambassador to Germany under President George W. Bush.

Turnout was exceptionally light in Ohio and North Carolina, a possible indication that the anger fueling voters across the country over economic woes, persistently high unemployment and Congress itself wasn't translating into votes -- and, perhaps, the limited influence of the conservatives and libertarians who make up the fledgling tea party coalition.