James Rufus Koren, Staff Writer
Created: 12/24/2010 07:00:27 PM PST
Tea party groups across the country clearly played some part in November’s Republican surge, but pinning down the role they played and the role they will play in California politics is tricky.
Local groups saw their influence in a few races and even helped win a few, but statewide, Republicans fared poorly, and tea party groups seemed to be a nonfactor. Changes in how state elections are run could make tea parties less influential in 2012.
“I thought the tea party momentum built up and was victorious, and then when it hit the California border, it came to a screeching halt,” said Kelly Good, organizer of the Chino Hills Tea Party. “California is very, very blue. But we had little victories here and there.”
Indeed, two local candidates backed by tea party groups managed to overcome more experienced, better-known and better-funded candidates in June’s primary elections.
Neither Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Claremont, nor Assemblyman Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, had ever held elective office before winning their primaries. Both beat more established Republican candidates with the help of tea party members.
And because they ran in Republican-controlled districts, they sailed through the November election.
“I’m satisfied that we did take some seats,” said Ross Lapham, an organizer of the San Bernardino County Tea Party. “I’m satisfied we did make a difference.”
But while those victories hearten local tea party leaders, they also seem to show the limits of tea party influence. True victories for tea party-backed candidates came only in Republican-held districts and in an election with very low turnout – the kind of election where a small number of conservative voters can make a big difference.
Donnelly overcame more established Republican candidate Chris Lancaster, who works for the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, a sister paper of The Sun, by just 631 votes.
Morrell beat his closest competitor, Navy Reserve officer Paul Chabot, by about 3,100 votes.
But only about a quarter of registered voters showed up for that election, and Morrell and Donnelly both won with votes from less than 12 percent of registered Republican voters in their districts.
Lapham said the tea party movement is still relatively new and that his and other groups will build on this year’s successes, even if they were small.
“We’re working toward the future here,” Lapham said. “It’s a work in progress. We’re looking forward to the next elections.”
But the next round of elections could be significantly different for tea party groups.
Because of a change in how California’s primary elections are conducted, candidates likely won’t be able to win primary elections with so few votes, and tea party groups might not see any such victories in the future, said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.
“It’s possible that (tea party groups) are still going to play a role, but they’re not going to have the same kind of say over who the Republican nominee is,” Pitney said.
Beginning next year, all voters, regardless of their political party affiliation, will be able to vote for any candidate. Rather than the top vote-getter from each party moving on to the general election, the top two vote getters will move on, regardless of their party.
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