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Tea Party’s shutdown tactics pose new challenges for GOP

Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, went to great lengths to distance herself from the Tea Party movement’s strategy ahead of the government shutdown. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — As Congress’s grueling fiscal impasse neared its end Wednesday, Senate Democratic leaders graciously thanked Republican leader Mitch McConnell and praised him for his courage in brokering a bipartisan deal. By Thursday, that praise had turned to an attack.

It came in the form of an e-mail sent around his home state by Senate Democrats’ political wing: “Face of DC Dysfunction: Mitch McConnell’s Shutdown Hurts Kentucky, Creates Disastrous Political Consequences for Himself.”

Democrats sent similar e-mails attacking Republicans facing tough elections around the country. The offensive highlighted how all Republicans — even those who publicly tried to end the Tea Party movement’s strategy of shutting down the government and bringing the nation to the brink of debt default — may pay a heavy political price.


“It’s not like the Biblical Passover, where there’s blood on the door to mark the virtuous,” said Fergus Cullen, former Republican Party chairman in New Hampshire. “Every Republican will get slaughtered. They will all suffer for the sins of one or two.”

The ironies are rich. Many in the mainstream GOP fed off the Tea Party movement’s considerable passion in 2010 and 2012. Now those same Republicans face an environment in which, according to national polls, the entire party is suffering from a backlash over the fiscal showdown.

GOP lawmakers and potential candidates, particularly those in moderate regions in the Northeast, are trying to determine how best to navigate an increasingly difficult terrain. Analysts say some will use a strategy familiar to Massachusetts voters, highlighting their independence from the party. Others from vulnerable regions will run against Washington as a whole or just attempt to move on and hope voters forget about the recent ordeal.

Some have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from the Tea Party movement and appear more bipartisan. Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who ran as a Sarah Palin-backed “Granite State mama grizzly,” emerged as a top critic of the Tea Party movement’s strategy and is increasingly emphasizing alliances with Democrats.


Other lawmakers raised fewer questions about the strategy and may need more damage control.

“Until you get burned, you don’t know what the consequences will be,” Representative Mike Kelly, a Pennsylvania Republican, said Thursday, referring to the failed strategy. “I hope we learned a lesson about looking at the things that you can actually accomplish.”

Yet Kelly voted with his party through much of the shutdown, and only Wednesday night did he side with 86 other House Republicans and 198 Democrats, passing a bill to end the shutdown and prevent a government default. His earlier votes and continued defense of his party’s strategy could tarnish him in his moderately conservative district.

In fact, almost every Republican lawmaker voted with the party’s conservative wing at various times during the shutdown, even those who fretted about the direction hard-liners were taking. Many said at the time that it was important to keep the party together as House Speaker John Boehner attempted to initiate negotiations with Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Others felt pressure from outside conservative interest groups that are pouring money into Republican primaries on behalf of Tea Party movement challengers.

Just one House Republican voted against the initial plan last month to defund Obama’s health law as a condition of keeping the government operating. That lawmaker, Representative Scott Rigell of Virginia, represents a district carried by Obama in the 2012 election.


“You only have so much in goodwill with the American people,” Rigell said during an interview in the midst of the shutdown. “My view was that the best solution and the best course of action is to not go down this road, but to save what I think of as the emotional bank account that we have with the American people.”

Rigell’s independence may help in his district, though few congressional districts in the country share its ideological mix. Like Ayotte, Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who is up for reelection next year, may benefit some from her public role in critiquing the Tea Party movement’s strategy and promoting compromise.

Collins tried to emphasize her independence at a press conference in her home state on Thursday in which she highlighted her role as a leader of a bipartisan group of 14 senators who helped end the impasse.

“There is no doubt that the Republican approval rating is appallingly low right now,” she said in a statement to the Globe. “But so is the approval rating for Democrats. The American people are justifiably angry at the failure of Congress and the president to govern effectively. They are tired of partisan attacks.”

Ayotte benefited extensively from Tea Party movement energy in her 2010 victory as she campaigned against Obama’s health care law. But during the shutdown, she criticized as absurd her Tea Party movement colleagues’ strategy of tying their fight against the Affordable Care Act to the funding of government, blaming them for a shutdown that ultimately bore no fruit for the party.


“The exchanges opened anyway,” Ayotte said in a 10-minute speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, referring to the online health insurance portals that debuted on Oct. 1, the first day of the shutdown. “Yet the government was shut down.”

Ayotte also wrote joint editorials with her Democratic colleague, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. The two appeared in TV interviews together and gave joint floor speeches.

Republicans in New England who are trying to get into Congress may have a tougher road. The region does not have a single Republican in the House. And the 2012 election showed that Democrats were particularly successful at tying candidates to the national Republican Party. Senator Elizabeth Warren unseated Republican Senator Scott Brown with a message that, even if Brown preached independence, his election could change the balance of power in the Senate. That would have made McConnell, a strong conservative, the majority leader, and Senator James Inhofe, a climate science skeptic from Oklahoma, in charge of the committee that sets environmental policy, Warren argued at the time.

Richard Tisei, a former Massachusetts state senator and Republican who nearly unseated Representative John Tierney in 2012 and is weighing another run, said on Thursday that he would try to emphasize disgust with both political parties if he challenges Tierney again.

“People might blame one side more than the other,” Tisei said. “But they’re just appalled by the pettiness, the arrogance, the stubbornness on both sides.”


He said he would also make the case that a return of moderate Republicans from New England would bolster like-minded voices within the party, such as Representative Peter King of New York, who led a small internal revolt against the Tea Party movement in a failed attempt to avert the shutdown.

“It would be good for the Republican Party to have more members like that,” Tisei said. “Hopefully, this whole debacle will prompt them to speak up more and be more aggressive.”

Globe correspondent Mattias Gugel contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at noah.bierman@ Tracy Jan can be reached at